Workplaces can be supportive environments for creating meaningful relationships, but even on the best teams, any of us can experience feelings of loneliness at work from time to time.
A preliminary survey conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard in October 2020 suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel “serious loneliness.” Experiencing serious loneliness like this can impact how we feel at work. According to our recent survey, over 40 percent of full-time employees attribute their negative mental health to their job, with a lack of belonging ranking as a top factor.
Loneliness is a difficult emotion to experience at work, but it doesn’t need to define your job. Whether your role itself is isolated by nature, you feel excluded by a clique of coworkers, or you’re just not feeling supported enough during a difficult time, there are steps you (and your employer) can take to make your workplace a space where you feel like you truly belong.
What loneliness at work looks like
Work can be stressful, and managing the health and safety concerns of an ongoing pandemic can make work even more stressful. Add loneliness in the mix and you’ve got a recipe for burnout and other mental health concerns down the road.
Loneliness at work isn’t too hard to spot in yourself or others, because your sense of belonging at work has a direct effect on your output. In our latest survey, full-time employees told us that their overall productivity decreased by 50% when they were affected by mental health challenges, suggesting that the more supported employees feel, the more they’re able to perform at their best. Plus, social isolation and poor cognition are linked, which is to say that when you feel lonely, it’s actually harder to process information and make decisions.
Beyond productivity at work, feeling isolated, unseen and unsupported can have a direct and serious impact on your overall health. A study in 2010 found that the impact of loneliness on mortality is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, prompting the World Health Organization to list “social support networks” as a key factor of overall health. If you’re not experiencing the level of social connection you need to thrive, you’re definitely not going to be able to show up at work as your fullest, healthiest self.
Take note that a lack of work-life balance is a key factor in American loneliness, so you may even find that you’re responding to (or causing) loneliness by throwing yourself into work more to make up for the connections you desire in other areas of your life.
On top of these challenges, historically excluded and marginalized groups are especially vulnerable to feeling lonely at work. Having to constantly code-switch to accommodate colleagues, handling out-of-nowhere microaggressions, feeling stuck while tokenized, and navigating ongoing discrimination in the workplace can place the structural burden of inequality onto already-marginalized workers, making them feel even more unsupported and alone.
Hispanic and African American workers are more likely than white workers to say they feel abandoned by coworkers when under pressure at work, more alienated from coworkers, and more emotionally distant at work.
And while working remotely can often be an isolating experience, it’s been a welcome relief to people traditionally excluded by corporate America: Only 3% of Black remote workers in the US want to return to full-time in-person work — compared to 21% of white remote workers — because they feel more included and less exposed to microaggressions while remote. The takeaway is clear: Working toward equity and inclusion and combating workplace loneliness go hand in hand.
There is a serious difference between feeling lonely at work and being prevented from belonging at work through discrimination, intentional exclusion, or harassment. If you or a coworker experience these issues, reach out to a trusted peer, manager, or your HR team.
Work can feel uniquely isolating at times — but that means it can also become an incredibly meaningful environment to build connections with others. When you feel connected to a shared sense of purpose at work, and you feel psychologically safe and supported around your coworkers, you’re more empowered to be your healthiest self. Here’s how to build more support into your workplace.
Tips for feeling less alone at work
Loneliness can feel overwhelming, especially when it’s compounded with burnout or a high-stress work environment. Though it is challenging to do, reaching out for connection isn’t a sign of weakness or job incompetence — it’s stepping up to meet a natural need for connectedness we all share. These strategies might help you find a starting point that works for you:
Recognize and respect your needs
Your need for connection in your life, especially at work, is a very natural and innate need. Humans are social beings. We need to feel socially supported at work to cope with stress and work together effectively. Acknowledge that your feelings of loneliness at work matter, and you deserve to feel like you belong at work.
Keep in mind how our shared experience of an ongoing pandemic impacts how we’re able to feel connected. As many of us limit our social calendars to reduce spreading illness, much of the social interaction we need as people has disappeared as our pandemic fatigue and burnout skyrocket. (We’re still learning about how deeply this has impacted our collective mental health.) Work has always made up a large percentage of our social interactions, but during a pandemic, many of us might find ourselves needing more social interaction at work to make up for the connections we miss elsewhere — and that’s okay, too.
As you try out some of the tips below, be gracious toward yourself and don’t bite off a lot of work commitments or lunch meetings to “catch up” on relationships. Go slow and check in with yourself often. Recognize that loneliness and reaching out can both feel draining, especially for people who experience social anxiety or other disabilities, so give yourself the time to build the work culture you need at your own pace.
Reach out to a teammate
This first one’s obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Research shows that people who are lonely overestimate how other people perceive their loneliness, when in reality, most people are dealing with their own day-to-day concerns and haven’t noticed that you’re feeling isolated or excluded. In other words: your coworkers won’t know you need help unless you ask.
After all, statistically, you’re not the only lonely person at your company. When you strike up a conversation in the breakroom or offer to pick up lunch for a colleague, who knows — you may be extending connection to someone feeling the exact same way! For remote workers, even dashing off a quick Slack message or asking for a video “lunch” catchup can be very emotionally meaningful for the person on the receiving end. Check out our tips for connecting with coworkers over breaks here.
Switch it up at work
Sometimes, it’s not your coworkers making you feel lonely — it’s the structure of your job itself. Feeling isolated by the nature of your role is sometimes inevitable (and worth evaluating whether it’s the right place for you long-term, if your loneliness is consistent and affecting your quality of life) but there are ways you can create opportunities for connection by changing elements of your job. Here are some ideas:
- If you have the chance to, join a new project or switch teams — you might find new coworkers you click with better than before
- Turn your need for connection into a win-win by mentoring a junior colleague. You’ll be able to enjoy that work relationship while also helping them succeed in their career
- Shadow a client call or sales training to feel more connected to your company and see your work from a different angle
- Offer to onboard or train a new hire. You’ll get to bond with someone new, and experience the fulfilling feeling of helping someone feel comfortable at their new job
- Change your schedule to align more with teammates you enjoy being around. Ask your manager for help moving around your shifts for a change of pace
Remember, be careful to not take on extra work or responsibilities in an effort to connect with others, or you’ll just be exchanging loneliness for burnout. Take on reasonable tasks within your role that don’t add to your workload.
Build new relationships in your industry or trade
If the idea of simply swinging by someone’s cubicle to invite them to lunch sends shivers down your spine, you might find that building relationships in more structured environments feels more comfortable to you. Luckily, there are lots of ways you can get plugged in:
- Sign up for or start an employee resource group (ERG). These company-sponsored affinity groups are a great way to find your people at work, especially if you work at a larger company, and some companies even compensate ERG members for their useful contributions to building a better work culture. Get in touch with your HR team to learn more.
- Join a union — these employee-led groups not only help you feel more connected to your company’s future and your role in it, but they can improve your mental health as well.
- Trade associations or professional groups present an opportunity for you to feel connected to colleagues outside of your company. It’s usually easy to find your local chapter with a quick internet search of your industry or trade and “trade association” or “networking events near me”.
How employers can facilitate connection at work
Loneliness is both personal and structural, so it belongs in your employee well-being strategy, too. Employers can do a lot to improve their people’s mental health through larger organizational change where it’s needed, but also through smaller opportunities to offer care, like social events and ERG support. Here are our recommended starting points:
Make it official
Appoint or hire a point person on your team like an employee engagement manager to run social events (instead of lumping it in with other people operations duties).
Give employee resource groups (ERGs) priority
Support your ERGs with adequate budget for their needs, and offer additional compensation or recognition for employees who lead ERGs. Ensure that ERGs are not extra work for employees by working with managers to accommodate ERG responsibilities in their workloads. This will help your ERGs be successful without burning out employees in the process.
Make connecting at work easier
Provide more social connection and recognition opportunities that are built into your company systems. Ask an icebreaker question at the beginning of a team meeting, co-host an online event with other companies who share your hybrid coworking space, or use a Slack integration to randomly pair employees for virtual meet-ups.
Turn the cameras off
Reduce Zoom fatigue, which can exacerbate burnout and loneliness in your team, by making sure camera-on meetings are only required when it matters most. This helps employees direct their social energy toward more socially meaningful small team breakouts and one-on-one connections, instead of having to be “on” constantly for everyone.
Focus on the bigger picture
Offer opportunities that connect employees with your larger mission and community while connecting them to each other. Host a drive for your local food bank, volunteer with a local environmental group, or fundraise for a nonprofit — and get your executive team involved! Feeling connected to a larger meaning or goal in a group setting can help alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Talk about loneliness
Normalize mental health conversations at work about loneliness. Loneliness can bring up other feelings like embarrassment, unhappiness, or even anger. Normalizing those feelings in the workplace can be an incredibly powerful way to show employees you have their backs. Read A Leader’s Guide to Supporting Mental Health Conversations at Work for more tips.
Provide mental health support
Provide your team with mental well-being benefits that help them access mindfulness tools and build coping skills through Calm. Meditations on Aloneness, Self Soothing, Burnout, and Stability may help to soften the sharper edges of loneliness, and masterclasses on topics like Radical Self-Compassion can help them find strategies for moving forward.
Loneliness is a challenging emotion to confront at work, but by giving yourself the right support (and asking your employer for more support), there are paths available to you through those challenges toward feeling like you truly belong at work.
For more resources, check out: