Identifying and combating loneliness in the workplace.

The loneliness epidemic is real, and it might be getting worse. In 2018, just over half of surveyed Americans reported feeling lonely. That number rose to 58% of surveyed Americans by the end of 2021. An 8% increase may not set off alarm bells at first, but consider this: 8% of the U.S. population represents nearly 26.5 million people.

U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, believes we should consider loneliness a major health threat. In a conversation with organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Dr. Murthy equates the negative health effects of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Because we spend so much time at work (⅓ of our lives!) our jobs can be a major cause of loneliness. Unfortunately, discussing loneliness in the workplace isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s human nature to shelter ourselves from others when we feel vulnerable, rather than reach out for support. Society's expectations of professionalism at work compound the issue: we’re expected to be “put together”, often setting aside details of our personal and professional lives. That’s why creating a work culture that rewards vulnerability is an important step to combating loneliness and encouraging a healthy and productive workplace.

Loneliness at work is real—and not just because we're all working from home these days. More than ever, people are craving real workplace connections. Luckily, you can implement changes today that can turn those missed connections into a deeply engaged, more productive workforce.

What is loneliness?

People often confuse loneliness with social isolation, though the two phenomena can be quite different in practice. Social isolation occurs when an individual has few social connections or interactions with others. On the other hand, loneliness occurs when an individual perceives they are receiving less connection and interaction with others than they require. It’s important to recognize that someone can be lonely and have many interactions, while someone experiencing social isolation may not feel lonely at all.

Therefore, when looking for common indicators of loneliness, managers must be cautious about making assumptions.

Establishing a rapport with individuals through a recurring one-on-one meeting is a great way for managers to build a trusting relationship with their teams and reduce assumption-making. Rather than keeping these one-on-ones strictly business focused, set aside a few minutes to ask personal questions and check in on your employees well-being. Again, lonely individuals rarely speak up about their feelings, and establishing trust is a great way to encourage vulnerability in the workplace (which we so rarely see!).

Tip: When trying to determine if an employee is lonely at work, ask questions in ways that encourage an open response, such as: Do you feel that you’re getting enough interaction and connection with your team?

How does loneliness affect team members?

According to psychologist Amy Sullivan, loneliness causes cortisol levels to increase. Essentially, this means your body produces more stress hormones than usual. Dr. Sullivan explains this can “impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease.”

The multinational health insurance firm, Cigna, surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. adults in December of 2021 and found a clear association between loneliness and poor physical and mental health.

Unsurprisingly, the physical and mental effects of loneliness have a significant effect on our performance in the workplace.

How does loneliness affect teams and organizations?

Simply put, lonely employees perform worse at their jobs. A Wharton study found that as an individual's loneliness increased, performance ratings from their supervisor decreased. This happens for a couple of reasons:

  • Lonely employees are less committed to their organizations, meaning they don’t work as hard or perform as well as their counterparts. In fact, lonely employees are nearly twice as likely to quit their jobs.
  • Lonely employees, because of the nature of being more distant, are viewed as less approachable. This makes it so other people are less likely to reach out and offer support. This compounds not only the individual's sense of loneliness, but also decreases collaboration among teammates.

The cost of lonely employees to U.S. companies is massive. Cigna estimates loneliness costs organizations $154 billion each year due to lost productivity.

How can managers help lonely employees?

Create real connections

Organizational research shows that creating connections is the most effective way to combat loneliness. While this is great in theory, most managers aren’t trained to create work environments that allow for connection, and without the proper knowledge, many fail.

It’s important to recognize that reshaping strategy to create connections between employees is achievable and within reach for all organizations.

“We often get stuck thinking the alleviation of loneliness requires big, deep, long relationships, when in fact a single encounter with another individual in the course of the day where people in that moment feel seen, feel known… that can fortify people and be an antidote [against loneliness]”, says University of Michigan professor Jane Dutton.

According to Jane’s research, even momentary encounters can create connections that alleviate loneliness. In fact, research shows that having just one friend at work can alleviate loneliness.

Not sure if your work culture is creating connections?

At Mystery, we care deeply about making connections. We’ve done the research and devised a three ingredient recipe for making connections:

  1. Create shared experiences: Does your team have opportunities to engage in shared, non-work related activities?
  2. Find and highlight similarities: We tend to like people the more we have in common with them. Does your work culture create space and time for employees to get to know one another?
  3. Encourage vulnerability: For people to truly connect they must share intimate information about themselves. Do you have a culture that allows people to share details about themselves without fear of rejection?

If your organization already prioritizes these building blocks, that’s great. Just remember that great cultures don’t maintain themselves; they need to be nurtured!

Don’t be afraid to retire outdated strategies

When we brainstorm ways to create more connections among employees, a few ideas always come to mind: Happy hour, company parties, and picnics. In theory, these events should help, right?

Unfortunately, the research paints a different picture. One that shows happy hours and company parties aren’t built for real connections.

Why is this?

In his conversation with Vivek Murthy, Adam Grant narrates that “research suggests company parties rarely build new bridges. People gravitate towards their existing friends and groups, leaving fault lines intact”. He goes on to mention that “happy hour is not set up for meaningful connection [because] group conversations tend to stay shallow”. Rather than solve for connections, these events can actually perpetuate loneliness in the workplace. And in an increasingly remote world, these events are becoming unfeasible.

So ditch the happy hours-only strategy. Your employees will thank you.

Prioritize non-transactional engagements

Many employees are hardwired to optimize for productivity, often giving less priority to relationships at work. As such, relationships have gotten more transactional over time; that trend has only accelerated with the shift to remote work. And while we think that prioritizing tasks over relationships improves productivity, the opposite is true: engaged, connected employees are more productive than their counterparts.

Providing opportunities for employees to engage in non-transactional ways is essential to creating organic connections. Here’s a few ideas to get started:

  • Find a fun prompt for your team to respond to before the beginning of each meeting. If you could eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • Encourage employees to form groups about shared interests: pets, sports, hiking, you name it.
  • Organize a virtual game during work hours. Murder mystery anyone? There are a ton of great YouTube tutorials out there for how to successfully organize a fun virtual game.

Whatever you do, be sure to ask for feedback!

Need more help?

We know a thing or two about making connections at work. Mystery uses data—and a little bit of magic—to identify areas in your team to strengthen connections. Then using that information, we curate the ideal virtual event based on participants' shared interests to guarantee teammates have an enjoyable experience. We’ve got hundreds of quality-vetted events for you to try.

Oh, and we work within your budget, because we know that’s important too.

75% of people feel more connected to their coworkers after each Mystery event. Let us know how we can help.