Calling to mind a hit song about loneliness (like Only the Lonely or Lonely Ol’ Night) is easy. Why is such a cheerless theme so popular? Because everyone suffers this ache from time to time, for a fleeting moment or season. But what happens when feelings of isolation and loneliness don’t go away… even when you’re surrounded by people at work? With so many people “connecting” through social media — and all the happy workplace vibes emanating from Silicon Valley, Seattle, Austin, and other pockets of thriving millennials — it’s hard to imagine that anyone suffers from loneliness at work. But the data says otherwise.
Whatever your industry or age, size, and location of your workforce, loneliness is a more pressing problem than you may realize. Over 40% of US adults report feeling lonely, many of them working age.1 More than simply a widespread personal problem, it’s fast becoming a major public health, employee well-being, and business issue.
Scientific research points to loneliness as a significant public health crisis, a health risk equal to that of cigarette smoking and obesity. From a physical and mental health perspective, loneliness has been linked with these and other conditions:2
- Chronic stress
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline
- Reduced immunity
- Premature death.
Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy points out that loneliness causes thinking skills to suffer, too. “At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.”3
Organizational development experts say loneliness breeds a lack of perceived control, disengagement, and reduced cooperation at work.4 Between health and job performance consequences, loneliness works against everything we’re trying to accomplish with workplace well-being efforts; let’s take the lead and do something about it.
Foster a Friendlier Work Culture
Workers do better, personally and professionally, when they have sound friendships with colleagues. According to Gallup, strong workplace social connections boost engagement and quality of work, while reducing risk of injury and illness.5
In How to Be Happy at Work, researcher Annie McKee talks about the vital importance of workplace friendships. “The love of family and friends is essential to our overall well-being. Similarly, caring relationships with colleagues at work enable us to thrive physically and psychologically.”6 She explains that people want to have good friends at work, to be liked, and to feel they belong. Making the effort and approaching workplace relationships with empathy, compassion, and forgiveness can build a strong foundation for them to flourish.
Scientific research points to loneliness as a significant public health crisis, a health risk equal to that of cigarette smoking and obesity.
Because friendships don’t come easily or naturally to everyone, wellness pros can team up with HR and other leaders to enhance management training, new hire orientation, and more with social well-being segments. When leaders at all levels intentionally guide their teams toward better work relationships, employees thrive and so does the organization. But it takes time and patience to build a friendlier work culture, especially if you’re starting from scratch.
What to Do
Try these 10 ideas to combat loneliness and foster friendships in your workforce:
- Convene an ad hoc group with representatives from front-line workers to leaders to decide the best connection strategies for your workforce. Add a related item to your employee satisfaction survey.
- Offer team wellness challenges; competing against other groups and departments to achieve shared goals is an excellent way to form stronger connections.
- Facilitate onsite walking groups. When people walk together, they talk; offer a list of conversation starters and suggestions like these to make it easy: “Tell me about your most recent trip” or “Learn a fun fact about a walking partner today.”
- Address loneliness, friendship, and belonging head-on in well-being communications, complete with skill-building how-tos and links to resources.
- Recommend allowing a few minutes during meetings for coworkers to update the group about a personal win or an upcoming vacation.
- Share ideas for cross-function events, like a facilities management/accounting lunch or an engineering/sales golf tournament.
- Create a Community Matters campaign; invite local recreation and shared-interest organizations to host a table in the lunchroom. Employees may discover a new group they’d like to join.
- Promote affinity groups for connections and fun outside of work or during lunch breaks; running groups, book clubs, choirs, jazz ensembles, and Toastmasters™ are excellent venues for getting to know coworkers.
- Seek opportunities to help employees make meaningful connections. A rotating Dine & Dish program, for example, could randomly group 3 people for lunch. Offer mentoring and support at every level in introducing colleagues as a normal part of the work day.
- Train leaders to make an extra effort to connect with remote team members so they feel included… while encouraging onsite employees to do the same.
What is Companionate Love?
We first heard this term in an extraordinary HERO Forum presentation by Olivia O’Neill, PhD, who described the concept as “affection, caring, fondness, tenderness, and compassion” among coworkers.7 Does that make you feel a little squeamish? Don’t worry; this isn’t about romance or spiraling into the depths of inappropriateness. It’s about cultivating positive work relationships that offer measurable benefits for employees and employers.
Employees are happier, more engaged, and more likely to bring their best when they have coworkers they consider friends and feel they’re a part of the workforce tribe. Loneliness is widespread, but it doesn’t have to be; you can make a difference by addressing it — as the high-priority business issue it is — in your organization this quarter.
1. AARP, Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+, 2010
2. Cacioppo S, Grippo AJ, London S, Goossens L, Cacioppo JT, Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions. Perspectives on psychological science: a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 2015;10(2):238-249. doi:10.1177/1745691615570616
3. Murthy V, Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, Harvard Business Review, 2017
4. Korkki P, Building a Bridge to a Lonely Colleague, New York Times, January 28, 2012
5. Mann A, Why We Need Best Friends at Work, Gallup, January 15, 2018
6. McKee A, How to Be Happy at Work, Harvard Business Review Press, 2017
7. O’Neill O, The Clues in Your Culture: How love, anxiety, and determination affect your bottom line, HERO Forum 17 presentation
Well-being consultant, educator, writer ｜ICHWC National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach ｜ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist ｜Lifestyle medicine advocate ｜25+ years in wellness ｜Jazz enthusiast.