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6 strategies to combat workplace loneliness

With changing work norms and the rampancy of workplace loneliness, organisations may contribute to the success of their workplaces by taking conscientious, compassionate measures to reduce loneliness

Published: Jul 12, 2023 12:35:56 PM IST
Updated: Jul 12, 2023 12:42:17 PM IST

6 strategies to combat workplace lonelinessYoung adults are the most lonely demographic in countries such as India and the United States. Image: Shuttertock

The cases of loneliness, an epidemic, are exponentially increasing worldwide. Loneliness happens when we lack meaningful social connections or are dissatisfied with the existing ones. Loneliness has deleterious outcomes, and countries like the UK and Japan have dedicated ministers for loneliness. Young adults are the most lonely demographic in countries such as India and the United States. This is unsurprising given the number of young adults the world population comprises. In fact, as per the United Nations estimates, there will be 1.3 billion people on the planet between the ages of 15-24. As reported by International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2022, around 66 percent of the total population (more than 808 million) is below the age of 35.

While there is a significant stream of research around combating loneliness in personal life, we still lack enough conversation around loneliness arising from a lack of meaningful relationships at work, also known as workplace loneliness. This is worrisome for employers as workplace loneliness is known to hamper employees' performance, morale, and commitment to the work and workplace, besides other deadly outcomes. Transient loneliness, if not fixed, may lead to chronic levels of loneliness, leading to severe psychological and psychological poor outcomes. For example, loneliness may take the form of severe anxiety and depression. It also induces cardiovascular diseases and hormonal imbalances. Loneliness impacts the way of thinking. It makes people so sceptical about their social environment that instead of trying hard to escape it, they start doubting everyone around them and staying vigilant to avoid getting rejected or hurt. This makes it harder for lonely people to recognise and accept the possibilities of establishing positive connections further. This goes into a vicious cycle.

The worst part is the ignorance around loneliness. In the modern world that we are living, loneliness is still considered taboo. Lonely people blame themselves for it, thanks to socially construed norms that evolved over the years around the understanding of sociability. 'I am not enough', 'I am an outcast', 'I am socially deficit', 'It must be my fault', 'I might have an unpleasant attitude', 'People do not like me', 'I may be the odd one out' are some of the thoughts that run through minds of lonely people quite often. This is contrary to the actual reason why one may get lonely. Loneliness may creep in, say, at work if that like-minded connection is missing. Yes, loneliness is subjective, and a good social link is not about the quantity but rather about the quality of it. Therefore, it is normal to feel lonely, given the social circumstances we are living in currently. Loneliness may be as rampant as the flu or common cold.

Also read: Is hybrid work here to stay in 2023 too?

In the post-pandemic world where virtual/ remote/hybrid/work from anywhere/working in silos and so on are becoming the new normal of work and are leading to some positive outcomes, managing the downsides such as failing to establish meaningful 'work' connections is challenging. Two things are important to understand for employers in this context. First, in the era of work-life integration, with the amount of time people spend on their work, it is inevitable to crave important social connections. Second, loneliness is domain specific. That means having an understanding spouse or a best friend does not necessarily imply their presence will alleviate loneliness at work. Individuals need emotional support or attachment figures in all domains of social life. A best friend or spouse might not completely understand the challenges faced at work as significantly as the colleagues will with whom we have a meaningful connection. Given the severity of loneliness and how it impacts individual cognition and, in turn, attitudes and behaviours of lonely people, tackling loneliness arising out of the workplace is not a cakewalk.

So, what can employers do about it? While workplace loneliness cannot be completely eliminated, support from employers, both proactive and reactive, is likely to help in mitigating these unpleasant sensations while working.

1) Ensure employees are finding meaning in the work they do  

Though nothing can compensate for a poor social connection, work that employees enjoy doing and perceive is worthwhile may help them cope with the loss of important work connections. This is because employees chase fulfilling jobs apart from social engagements, among the other most important work engagement factors. Focusing on the 'person–work fit' may significantly help ensure this. Under this, leaders should ensure that the larger work allotted to the employees matches their preferences, traits, and attitudes to ensure better involvement and connectedness with the work.

2) Promote membership in interest/ hobby groups

Even while it is not always feasible to discover the best fit between individuals and their work, engaging people in interest groups that go beyond the duties of their day-to-day jobs is possible. Interest groups at work centred on topics such as health, the arts, theatre, poetry, animals, and humanitarian activity, amongst other issues, may provide opportunities to blend in with like-minded coworkers outside of the setting of work-related interpersonal encounters, which are already constrained and difficult to navigate. Such groups enhance feelings of belongingness and social connectedness among colleagues.

3) Create an environment of trust

A work environment filled with toxicity, such as unnecessary politics, backbiting, putting each other down, and unappreciative of others' achievements, only worsens the belongingness among colleagues. Another example includes while organisations emphasise doing the right things and advocate speaking out on malpractices, harassment, and so on, they lack a set process to 'protect' the victim, resulting in extreme levels of workplace loneliness. This is further topped by the leader's lack of conscious efforts to reach out to the subordinates, connect with or listen to them. Such an environment instigates feelings of loneliness by making people worried, unsafe, aloof and socially distanced. Leaders may help by taking preventive steps such as safeguarding whistle-blowers' identities, discouraging ganging against each other, and kissing up or kicking down. Instead, a workplace made conducive by ensuring smooth and open communication, building a shared responsibility culture, and deliberate efforts to reach out to peers does long-term good.

4) Prevent forced participation in 'perceived' unethical matters

While it is true that the employees' intentions should be aligned with that of the organisation, the matters should be handled with sensitivity and care. For example, if a person perceives a business practice as unethical or unacceptable, leaders should strive to understand the reasons for misalignment instead of labelling employees as 'uncooperative'. Labelling certain misalignments as 'lack of cooperation' leads to spreading bad word of mouth amongst colleagues under the guise of genuine feedback. It intentionally separates the employee from the rest causing severe loneliness at work. Instead, having proper communication to understand employees' perceptions in such situations may help. Therefore, caution must be taken in handling sensitive matters at work.

Also read: 7 tips to thrive in a hybrid work environment


5) Safeguard minorities

Evidence suggests that minorities at work are more prone to workplace loneliness than their counterparts. While organisations promote diversity, little is done to make workers feel included and valued. Leaders may genuinely create a growth culture by sensitising people to appreciate individual differences. Some efforts that may help in preventing loneliness among minority employees include eliminating discriminatory attitudes by learning to get rid of implicit/explicit biases and preconceived notions around gender, caste, race, region, neurodivergence, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on. For example, the domination of members of a specific region or gender makes them unable to penetrate the tribe or the clique, leaving them feeling left out or withdrawn. When treated with equality and respect, employees perceive their workplaces as safe, welcoming, and inclusive, minimising negative feelings of loneliness.

6) Advocate an environment of health and fitness

As unrelated as it may sound, medical research has progressed over the years in investigating how loneliness impacts neurotransmitters and hinders the functioning of dopamine neurons. This may result in serious medical threats as loneliness adversely affects the brain's cognitive functioning. Physical activities help in this regard by releasing endorphins, a mood-lifting chemical that positively impacts emotions and overall well-being.

While organisations should encourage employees to seek the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, they may also spread awareness about the benefits of being physically active. Encouraging employees to use health facilities at work, and organising frequent activities around running, HIIT, swimming, yoga, Zumba, strength training, brisk walking, and so on, for teams are some ways to promote fitness culture at work, which not just enhance physical and mental health but also improves team cohesion and sense of connectedness.

Healthy and happy employees are the responsibility of employers to a great extent. Thus, loneliness is not completely a personal issue. Organisations are equally responsible for helping employees overcome this negative experience at work, given that loneliness has huge implications for employers and society. With changing work norms and the rampancy of workplace loneliness, organisations may contribute to the success of their workplaces by taking conscientious, compassionate measures to reduce loneliness and let individuals cherish their associations with their employers.  

Payal Anand is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IIM Kozhikode, India. She is the author of Mastering Behaviours - Managing Self and Others. She has spent a decade understanding the impact and implications of workplace loneliness through her research, teaching, and training of corporate professionals. She has trained around 1500+ working executives at various levels around personality, emotions, and positive interpersonal exchanges at work.

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