Firstly, a great number of people are embarrassed to admit that they are lonely, as to do so means acknowledging social failure.
In this article: You will learn more about what workplace loneliness is and how is it connected to burnout? What are the reasons for social withdrawal and why social support is so important? You will also gather useful tips that you can apply as an employee, a manager or in your out-of-office life so that you can build resilience to stress by cultivating a social support network.
Today, three in five Americans (61%) classify themselves as lonely, according to research results carried out by Cigna (1) based on the responses of more than 10,400 adults in the U.S. Loneliness and in particular loneliness in the workplace is becoming a growing epidemic. It is a real problem and is affecting business, relationships and wellbeing.
At the same time, data shows that for about 70% of employees, maintaining good job communication is just as important as the specifics of the job and the financial bonuses.
These statistics show a huge conflict between needs and reality. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Man is a social animal – we need a sense of connection and belonging. The organization we work in is like a micro-world, where we spend a significant amount of time. Therefore, feeling engaged, included, needed and socially supported makes us more satisfied and has a direct impact on productivity and loyalty to the organization. At the same time, positive relationships in the workplace are shown to be top preventive factors of burnout. So, building a good social and emotional climate at the workplace and encouraging social support should be a priority for organizations; managers and employees.
Why is loneliness harmful?
Scientific research shows that loneliness has the same health risks as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day (2).
Feeling lonely reduces your immunity making you more vulnerable to diseases and at the same time increases inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.
Researchers who examine animals and people summarized by Ozbay and colleague (3) show how harmful loneliness can be:
“Social isolation has been associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, hypercortisolemia, and atherosclerosis. For example, among cynomolgus monkeys, resting heart rate increases during separation and isolation but returns to normal when monkeys are reunited with their social group; cortisol rises in squirrel monkeys and wild baboons during isolation; at postmortem examination, atherosclerosis has been significantly greater in swine and in female monkeys living alone vs. those living in social groups. Further, evidence suggests chronic stress and lack of social support increases cardiac risk.
In human studies, low social support has been associated with physiological and neuroendocrine indices of heightened stress reactivity, including elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and exaggerated cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to laboratory stressors. For example, in laboratory studies mental arithmetic and public speaking tasks cause significantly smaller rises in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol among subjects supported by another person compared to subjects who are alone.”
What is workplace loneliness?
Workplace loneliness refers to feeling disengaged and disconnected from work and peers. Since employees feel they lack the desired connection with peers, they become emotionally detached with the organization and their colleagues. Feeling lonely at work affects one’s overall wellbeing and therefore the person’s reasoning, decision making ability and motivation. Stress in general, and in particular work-related stress affect people even more if they’re lonely. Everyday obstacles may take a bigger emotional toll on individuals who lack social and emotional support. Often, withdrawal behavior occurs, which may have an adverse impact on the personal and organizational effectiveness. Therefore, dealing with loneliness should be a manager’s priority, too.
Which are the Loneliest jobs?
A recent survey found that the loneliest professions are engineer, lawyer and scientist.
The study also found that single employees without any children were the most likely to experience loneliness.
So, if you are on the list , you should bear in mind the signs of burnout, the main risk factors and proactively manage them (look for info and ideas here– link to article one and two). It is very important for you to take preventive action (for ex. sleep well; eat healthy; exercise; take your breaks and vacations, actively maintain social connections). Check out how to boost your happy hormones here to help prevent burning out (link) .
Workplace loneliness and Burnout
Well, we all seek commonality and we, consciously or deep inside, aim to bond and feel included, involved and appreciated. When we are lacking in fulfilling work relationships, we somehow feel rejected, not fitting in or not good enough we often withdraw and loneliness kicks in. So, withdrawal makes us feel lonely but at the same time becomes a way to defend ourselves and a tool for handling anxious thoughts. Isolating ourselves may make us feel even more empty and sad and ultimately lead us to burnout (to read about what burnout is click here- Burnout? I don’t have time for that!)
At the same time, people in high-pressure jobs or those who have more than one job often become so exhausted from trying to keep up with the demands placed on them at work that they don’t have any emotional resources left to interact socially, even if they potentially want to, when they’re off work.
Social Support as a way to beat work-related loneliness
Social support is essential for maintaining good physical and psychological health. Good social support may moderate genetic and environmental vulnerabilities and confer resilience to stress, possibly via its effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system, the noradrenergic system, and central oxytocin pathways. No surprise, lack of positive relationships at work is one of the top reasons for continued stress that can lead to burnout ( check out the other top reasons here).
Research shows that high levels of perceived social support are associated with low levels of perceived burnout. Social support moderates and minimizes the risk of feeling detached within the self and the others and the risk of diminishing personal accomplishment (2).
So, let’s see how to cultivate social support in order to beat loneliness in the workplace?
Tips to managers:
On average, lonely workers say that they think of quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers. When the environment is not fulfilling social provisions adequately, a usually well-adjusted sociable character can develop the behaviour and thought process typically attributable to lonely individuals (3). Research in the field indicates that environmental factors such as fear, lack of community spirit, and value congruence play a role in the experience of work-related loneliness, have an overall negative effect on job satisfaction (4) and may therefore lead to burnout. This is why fostering healthy social relationships is important for the effective functioning of an organization and is considered a necessary prerequisite for organizational health (5, 6).
What can I do as a manager to support my employees?
- Start with yourself: Be active, open and consistent with meaningful communication; give recognition and provide feedback; create a safe place for failure;
- Think about your organizational culture, talk about values and goals;
- Give space to your employees to be themselves. Studies show that employees report feeling less lonely when they can be their true selves at work and when their employers promote good work-life balance. (7)
- Research shows that approximately 70% of work satisfaction is because of communication with the team. So, be confident to encourage not only formal but also informal communication. There is a correlation between informal communication and productivity.
- Encourage collaboration on tasks and group support. Laboratory studies show that people feel better when supported by a mate.
- Pay special attention to new employees. They should know who to turn to for support.
- Educate yourself about burnout and actively think about strategies to prevent the risk. Keep in mind that social withdrawal or angry behavior in the group may be one of the first signs of burnout.
Tips to employees:
- Choose a company that fits your values and beliefs.
- Choose work that gives you the feeling that you can be your true self.
- If the above two are not possible in the current moment, make an effort to be more socially active and grow your social-support network outside of the office.
- Start with yourself. Be the person that supports and includes others instead of passively expecting. Research shows that giving makes us happier. Give operational and emotional support and share knowledge. Regularly checking-in with co-workers and showing friendly support can help reduce loneliness at work and therefore the risk of burnout.
- Try to naturally increase the hormones that are related to connecting with others – mainly Oxytocin. (линк)
- If you generally find it difficult to connect with others (for example, because you feel anxious, shy, too competitive , can’t relate to others or you fear rejection) search for support from a specialist.
Tips for an out-of-the office social network
Oftentimes, one of the main reasons we feel so scared when thinking about meeting new people, is the fear of rejection. Maybe you think something like “What if they don’t like me? What if they think I’m different or weird? What if they make fun of me? What if I don’t know what to talk about?” Keep calm, most people go through this! Try to focus on your strengths and just make the first step.
- Choose social activities that correspond to your mood and needs. Don’t just do something, because it is expected or because you want to please someone.
- Think of an old interest or activity that excites you and connect with people with a similar hobby.
- Both quantity and quality of social connections is important, but research shows quality is more important. So if you do not have enough time for social activities outside the office, think about what will make you feel better, even if it’s for only 15 minutes (for example calling a friend, reading a book to your child or chatting with the old lady next door).
- Put time for social activities in your schedule. Make time and space for them.
- Try something new or unusual (talk to a stranger or someone you meet in the neighborhood everyday and never talk to; if you are shy or not an expert in small talk, use something common, as an icebreaker, for example; it is easier to talk to people with pets if you are a dog lover).
- Connect with Connectors- A great way to expand your social circle is to connect to someone through whom you’ll meet many other people.
- Commit to a Local Community- One of the fastest ways to boost your social life is to get involved in a community that has the type of people that you want as friends.
- Think about people you’ve talked to in passing, even friends of friends. Were they engaging and cool? Did you have something in common? It’s okay to reach out to hang out again. Honestly, they might want to be friends, too, but are in the same boat of ‘adult uncertainty’ regarding how to make that happen.
- Go to networking events in your career field. If you find it too challenging, take a friend along.
Time to self-reflect:
Take 10 minutes to be observant about yourself and ask yourself questions to mentalize about. For example:
- Do I like the social and emotional climate in my organization? What depends on me to feel better?
- Do I have a supportive social circle outside of work? How can I maintain, develop and grow my social support circle?
- Am I active or passive in relationships? Do I isolate myself from social interactions? Why is that so? What am I protecting myself from?
- Loneliness and the Workplace. 2020 U.S. report https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-factsheet.pdf
- Tiwari, S. “Loneliness: A disease?” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 55,4 (2013): 320-2. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.120536
- Ernst, J. & Cacioppo, J. (1998) Lonely hearts: Psychological perspectives on loneliness. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 8, 1-22
- Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007;4(5):35-40.
- Moore, T. (1996). Caring for the soul. Executive Excellence, 13(6), 14
- Pfeifer, J., & Veiga, J. (1999). Putting people rst for organization success. Academy of Management Executive, 13(2), 37–51
- Loneliness and the Workplace. 2020 U.S. report. https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-report.pdf
- Woodhead EL, Northrop L, Edelstein B. Stress, Social Support, and Burnout Among Long-Term Care Nursing Staff. J Appl Gerontol. 2016;35(1):84-105. doi:10.1177/0733464814542465
- Wright, S.L. (2005). “Loneliness in the Workplace”. University of Canterbury. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/29488030_Loneliness_in_the_Workplace