It’s well known that the secret to living a happier, healthier and longer life is by fostering positive relationships and a sense of community. Just weeks ago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote a New York Times opinion piece decrying the loneliness epidemic in our nation.
This need for high-quality relationships and a sense of community applies not just to everyday life, but our workplaces as well. A newly released White House advisory stresses the importance of mental health in the workplace; after all, more than one-third of a person’s life is spent with their coworkers.
Yet, despite this time spent with others, workplace loneliness is pervasive. Pre-pandemic figures estimated that nearly 40 percent of the workforce was lonely. With hybrid and remote work environments, rates of loneliness have only increased. According to a newly released survey from Glassdoor Economic Research, more than half (58 percent) of employees with fewer than five years of work experience feel lonely all or most of the time. This figure drops slightly to about half for those with six to 10 years of experience, and interestingly, skyrockets again as workers, particularly women, ascend the corporate ladder.
What is workplace loneliness?
Employees experience workplace loneliness when they feel there is no one in the organization that understands their challenges and struggles, regardless of how many people may be physically around them. Unfortunately, this problem is much more common than one might think. Certain types of jobs which tend to be more solitary, such as truck driving and night security, come to mind as obvious candidates for loneliness.
But it’s not just these more isolating job types that are impacted. Think of individuals working in call centers, who have the often-challenging job of speaking with disgruntled customers for most of the day. They may be surrounded by co-workers in a huge call center facility, but since they are constantly under stress, their brains actually get rewired to think there is no one who understands their plight.
While remote work and hybrid work set-ups have certainly created a lot of benefits for employees, these arrangements also bring about the potentially negative downside of exacerbating workplace loneliness. The impact of loneliness and isolation in remote work can be real. According to one poll by the American Psychiatric Association, a majority of employees working from home say they have experienced the negative mental health impacts of loneliness and isolation. While there are differing opinions on the pros and cons of remote and hybrid work, one thing’s for certain: it’s here to stay, and talent managers need to be aware of both the substantial benefits as well as the risks.
The impact of workplace loneliness
Workplace loneliness can cost an organization a great deal of money in terms of diminished efficiency and output. According to Cigna research, loneliness can cost employers $154 billion a year in lost productivity due to absenteeism. In fact, lonely workers are more than twice as likely as those who are not lonely to miss work due to illness, and more than five times as likely to miss work due to stress.
Even when present on the job, employees feeling lonely often don’t take advantage of those expensive resources that a company may offer, such as “wellness” benefits. Going beyond the cost of increased absenteeism and not leveraging wellness benefits, loneliness substantially contributes to worker job withdrawal, exacerbates burnout by decreasing one’s capacity for resilience, and overall, has negative implications for organizational effectiveness.
Moreover, workplace loneliness can be a major employee health concern: recent studies have shown that loneliness can substantially increase the risks of heart disease and stroke. This sad reality can increase an organization’s insurance costs, and when those companies are self-funded, they bear the financial brunt when employee health declines.
Improving the state of loneliness in the organization
On the flip side, what are the positives of a workplace that promotes connection and continuity? Positive retention is certainly one result: According to the Glassdoor Economic Research highlighted above, 28 percent of workers under 35 reported they would stay in a job they didn’t like if the workplace social life was good.
It behooves companies, and talent managers specifically, to combat workplace loneliness by creating workplaces that foster deeper, more meaningful connections between and within employees and managers. Talent managers should focus on building a culture that encourages authentic human connection and offers resources to address social needs that might contribute to loneliness. For example:
- Assess benefits packages closely: Talent managers should be working with HR teams to assess and offer benefits packages that address loneliness both within and outside of the workplace. Given how loneliness can fundamentally change the brain, reducing employee loneliness holistically through innovative solutions can make a major impact on how your workforce experiences human connection, regardless of their location.
- Encourage connections:Talent managers should be regularly setting up time for employees to form deeper connections through meaningful and substantive interactions. Create opportunities for them to learn more about each other on a personal level and validate each other’s experiences. This is especially important when employees are remote. Can’t-miss social gatherings (even if conducted remotely), can be particularly valuable for building goodwill, shared experience and connectedness to your workplace community.
- Find workarounds: Remove barriers to people meeting up, like travel for in-person get-togethers. Whenever possible, organizations should cover these costs. This can be especially valuable in addressing potential loneliness among younger workers and women, who are often the most vulnerable.
- Experiment: Explore new ways to create better connections, whether through events, one-on-one meetings, periodic feedback and special recognitions.
For talent managers, cultivating a positive workplace that addresses the issue of loneliness is no longer a “nice to have.” Workplace loneliness can be detrimental and costly on a variety of levels, from absenteeism, to retention and productivity, to employees’ physical health. Talent managers should play a key role in helping their organizations think outside the box when it comes to recognizing and concretely addressing loneliness.