According to a survey on global loneliness by the Survey Center of American Life, the average American spends approximately 81,396 hours of their lifetime, that is the equivalent of 9 years, at work. The amount of time spent at the workplace means most Americans develop more friendships at work than anywhere else in their lives, including schools, social gatherings, family events and places of worship to name a few. Yet global findings seem to contradict this finding.
Findings by American analytics and advisory firm Gallup showed that only 3 in 10 employees reported having a best friend(s) at work. Meanwhile, another survey of theirs found that global loneliness peaked during Q3 2020 - Q2 2021, at 26%, 23%, and 20% for remote, hybrid and on-site employees respectively. Though the numbers have shown a downward trend since then, Gallup posits that global loneliness at the workplace is becoming more of a concerning matter and urges organizations to take note of the situation before it spirals out of control. The question is, what can organizations do to tackle global loneliness at work and why is it so important for us to take note of the phenomena?
Findings by Gallup showed that global loneliness peaked around Q3 2020 - Q1 2021. Image courtesy of Gallup.
An era of disruptive working models
To first understand how global loneliness at work became a widely-concerned topic, we must first understand the root cause. Historically speaking, global loneliness (workplace or not) was already on the rise even before COVID-19 plunged the world into an era of social distancing. In America alone, a 2018 survey conducted by medical insurer Cigna revealed that 61% of Americans experienced loneliness. Yet what exacerbated the phenomena was the rise of flexible work arrangements.
The remote and hybrid work model has been the best, yet arguably the worst thing that has ever happened to us. On the plus side, they allow us to work from the comforts of our homes, save on commuting time and costs and enable us to play an active role in family bonding. However, the downside to remote and hybrid work models is the lack or reduced employee engagement, the blurred lines of work-life balance, and reduced (literal) face time.
In an era of digital communication and advanced technology, it’s easy to assume that humans are more connected than ever, including employees at work, ironically this couldn’t be any more distant from the truth. According to the Wall Street Journal, even CEOs of top ranking companies such as JP Morgan Chase & co. and Zoom Video Communications Inc have reported burning out on back-to-back video calls. To quote Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in a video call concerning meeting fatigue,
“...Last April on a big day, I had a total of 19 meetings (and) I’m so tired of that, so I do have meeting fatigue.”
A year later following Gallup’s survey on global loneliness, the Work Trend Index 2022 by Microsoft found that 55% of hybrid employees and 50% of remote employees out of the 31,000 employees surveyed across 31 countries reported feeling lonely. Both findings were supported by organizational psychologist and Boston University’s Questrom School of Business lecturer Constance Hadley, who states that negative emotions such as loneliness could be detrimental to organizational performance and well being.
Put simply, staying connected via devices isn’t enough to ward off loneliness at work, and it’s clear that we all require genuine, authentic and supportive interactions between employees to tackle the issue.
How loneliness derails an employee’s work performance
And subsequently, the organization’s. The effects of loneliness on an employee has been well documented. Many research have established that workplace loneliness leads to decreased productivity and feelings of isolation. Here are a few more lesser-discussed negative side effects to experiencing loneliness at work.
Role ambiguity & Role conflict
According to a collaborative research published by Frontiers in Public Health, remote and hybrid-working employees typically suffer from role ambiguity - The failure to manage the accompanying expectation of one’s role at work, and role conflict - The inability to comprehend the job scope and importance of said role. Role ambiguity and role conflict are found to negatively correlate with the quality and opportunity to create meaningful workplace friendships, which in turn leads to an increased risk of developing loneliness.
Increased turnover rate
In the similar study referenced above, organizations that do not address workplace loneliness may see an increased turnover rate, owing to the lack of belongingness and connectedness employees may feel towards work peers. A lonely employee may develop a perceived sense of being “left out” and subsequently, a stronger desire to leave the company as a result of the perceived alienation, or what researchers term “emotional divergence” from the establishment. Contradictorily, a supportive and inclusive social circle at work may lead employees to develop a greater sense of social belonging at work, which fuels positive association to the organization and willingness to remain.
A drop in employee productivity automatically results in lost revenue. Lower levels of efficiency translates to greater monetary loss, as businesses may lose out potential clients and million/billion dollar projects that drive organizational growth. Employees who report high levels of loneliness develop lower levels of job satisfaction and willingness to engage in collaborative team structures and workstyles. The two, coupled with increased turnover rate, will significantly cost businesses plentiful business opportunities. To quote Gallup’s entry on global loneliness, workplace best friends and social inclusivity,
“...If increased productivity, profitability, job satisfaction, and retention aren’t enough, Gallup’s latest findings show that since the start of the pandemic,
having a best friend at work has an even greater impact on important outcomes…”
Poor decision-making processes
Given loneliness negatively impacts our emotions, our ability to commit to our jobs and reduce our job satisfactions, it’s only natural to assume that it also leads to poor decision-making and making bad calls at work on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, a study examining the dichotomy between loneliness and organizational performance found that lonely employees exhibit lower levels of creativity and tend to make poorly-informed choices, thus proving that loneliness can cloud our judgment for the worse.
A precursor to increased turnover rate, lonely employees may display increased absenteeism at work. Their desire to withdraw from work, to “escape” the mundane and monotonous environment at work will spur them to sit out from work whenever possible. Increased absenteeism is also linked to decreased productivity/efficiency, which links to all the above we have discussed.
While we have only discussed the effects from an organization’s perspective, it remains undisputed that global loneliness is detrimental to both the business and employees. Apart from experiencing the above, lonely employees are at risk of developing physical and psychological health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, depression, anxiety disorder to name a few. Clearly, loneliness at work needs to be addressed, which brings us to our next question, how?
How can organizations tackle workplace loneliness
For a long time, organizations have been hard at work at addressing loneliness via enforcing team collaboration and on-site social events. However, these frequently utilized methods have done little to encourage interaction among employees, instead, we recommend organizations to explore these alternatives instead.
Establish buddy systems
Pairing new hires with veteran employees can help newcomers be better acquainted with the people in the organization. A seasoned employee can help a new hire transition and adapt to their new working environment with relative ease, and eliminates instances of an “awkward” scenario during mass interaction. Another study by Microsoft found that when both the new hire and veteran employee frequently interacted with one another during the first 3 months of the job, 97% of newcomers reported experiencing increased levels of productivity. Furthermore, the friendship between a new hire and veteran employee may even blossom into a long-term friendship, which provides the advantage of potentially having a supportive work best friend.
Encourage face-to-face interaction
With most companies recalling their employees back to the office these days, it can be helpful to encourage in-person interaction, as it goes a long way in keeping loneliness at bay for employees. This has to start with leaders and managers, where they would be the ones to prioritize communicating in-person over emails or phone calls if they can help it. This sends the message that you value and acknowledge them. Additionally, having a conversation allows you to check in on them, to find out if they’re facing any difficulties at work and if you are able to offer any form of assistance pertaining to work. Even if the company operates on a fully-remote culture, it doesn’t hurt for leaders and managers to set up an in-person interaction once a month, or every biweekly. Speaking to your employees, even for a brief 30 minutes, provides a much-needed relief for both parties and significantly improves employee well being at work.
Foster Get-to-Know-Your-Colleague Days
You can’t force people to interact with people that they dislike, however, you can help them widen their social network in hopes that they would gain a friend or two from the exchange. Many small to medium-sized businesses are known to foster such sessions, as it allows employees to interact with one another on a more private and genuine level. However, we believe the practice is applicable to larger scale organizations too, and if employee numbers are a concern, the management can encourage employees to interact with one another within their department first, before rotating to other departments. Roping in the HR to create such events are also helpful in encouraging participation and keeps them in the know of employee well being.
Practice work interdependence
Unlike team collaborations which “forces” employees to work together on a massive scale, work interdependence preaches the value of smaller scale-focused, more intimate collaborations, usually between the leader and one or two junior-level employees. While we can’t possibly expect junior employees to undertake large, sizable tasks, the interaction will give them the opportunity to interact, assist and learn from high-level leaders and managers. The exchange will also enable leaders to bypass the organization structure, drop the status and interact with junior team members on a more candid level, providing them with a ground-level observation and awareness of what goes on in the organization that a top-down approach wouldn’t provide. Essentially, it’s a win-win approach.
No human is an island…
And as one of the adages goes - Humans are social creatures. Even if one strongly prefers a solitary nature in life, they could benefit from having a close friend or two, and a few acquaintances from time to time, that goes to employees at work too. This reminds us of another concept in Psychology - Altruism, which is the selfless desire to help and care for one another. After all, only uplifting others in life can we truly grow and go further ourselves too.