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All the Lonely Workers


Whether at home or the office, too many of us are hit by waves of loneliness. Here’s how organizations can do better

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Last fall, Shawna O’Grady was preparing to lead a team training session for a not-for-profit organization when one of the participants arrived early for the session. They struck up a conversation. The participant shared that she experienced anxiety from working from home and battled a gnawing sense of loneliness. “When I asked her whether she had reached out to any team members, she lowered her head in shame and said she was sure all the others were doing fine,” says O’Grady, an associate professor at Smith School of Business and veteran team consultant. 

The encounter got her thinking. When the rest of the participants arrived, she asked whether anyone felt lonely working from home. “Over half of the team responded that they were finding the situation very difficult,” she says.  

O’Grady had a glimpse of a workplace phenomenon that is getting more attention in the aftermath of the pandemic. It may be a taboo topic for employees but a U.S. study suggests that 20 to 25 per cent of people in the workplace struggle with loneliness. Surveys in the U.K. and Europe show that one in 10 people are always or very often lonely at work. Disabled workers and those with long-term health conditions are more than twice as likely to feel that way. 

We didn’t suddenly become lonely at our desks after the worst of Covid was over. (After all, a Harvard Business Review cover story in 2017 focused on loneliness as a public health crisis.) But the pandemic accelerated the transition to the work-from-home model and made us keenly sensitive to the lack of social connection. Can it be a surprise that the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and the Epidemic of Loneliness all entered mainstream consciousness at the same time? 

Link to corporate culture 

Workplace loneliness is an equal opportunity condition. It touches everyone from entry-level workers to executives and is evident across the lifespan. Studies have shown that employees feel particularly lonely when they believe they have fewer high-quality social connections at work compared to peers. Such feelings are heightened by a lack of control over working arrangements and a perceived mismatch between one’s work and skill set. 

Corporate culture also plays a role. According to one study, organizational cultures that are individualistic, competitive and focused on performance are associated with increased levels of loneliness.

What is less clear is whether remote or hybrid work, with all its isolation and misfiring communications, increases employee loneliness. It seems intuitive, but loneliness is not necessarily about social isolation: you can be very lonely in a crowd. 

The evidence is hardly conclusive. Research completed before the pandemic suggested that competing demands for attention between work and home increased workplace loneliness, though it was less of an issue for remote workers who felt well supported by supervisors and co-workers. But more recent studies did not find higher levels of loneliness among those who worked mainly from home than those working on-site — though remote workers are more likely to want opportunities to socialize with colleagues during working hours. 

Lonely in teams 

For employees prone to loneliness, teamwork seems to be more problematic than remote work. In general, it’s been shown that people who work as part of a team are more likely to report loneliness than those who work mainly alone. Low membership stability and lack of role clarity are significantly correlated with greater expressions of loneliness. 

Some management experts, O’Grady included, argue that modern teams — typically short-term with fluid membership — are breeding grounds for shallow relationships that trigger loneliness. “In many industries, people often don’t stay on the same team for very long, so they don’t have time to form strong bonds with their teammates,” she says. “Employees are chosen for teams because of their specific expertise. When they’ve completed their part, they move on to another team. It’s difficult to get to know your teammates very well.” 

It appears the more time workers spend alone, the more difficult it is to develop an esprit de corps when they do get together. One chief human resources officer told O’Grady that despite their many attempts to help employees connect at quarterly off-site events, a growing number of employees are no-shows. “Even those employees who do attend are reluctant to connect, spending their time doing email and checking social media as opposed to connecting with others,” O’Grady says. “These off-sites used to be events no one would miss.” 

Emotional management 

Employers are often reluctant to intrude on the emotional lives of employees, but modest interventions have been shown to be effective at cultivating an emotionally healthy workplace. 

O’Grady says the first step is to develop a survey to benchmark and track the scale of the challenge. This is especially important in hybrid or remote work environments.  

Team leads can help lonely employees by focusing on their team’s emotional culture. O’Grady suggests they create norms for their team or department that include positive behaviours that encourage people to treat each other positively and with respect. This has been shown to mitigate some of the negative effects of loneliness.  

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Conducting regular team development sessions will establish a strong relationship foundation. Managers can then build on that, O’Grady says, by organizing in-person social activities once a month based on ideas from the employees.  

Another simple measure for team leads to enact is to take a temperature check. “At the beginning of each meeting,” says O’Grady, “ask all team members to state how they’re doing on an emotional level, from one to 10. Or ask them what their energy level is, from one to five.”  

Managers can then go deeper during regular one-on-ones with their direct reports, allowing them to assess their emotional state: What has gone well this week? What challenges are you facing? How can I help you? 

Studies have shown how managers’ personal styles can have an impact on lonely workers. They suggest that leaders with a sense of humour or who are considerate are less likely to have lonely team members. The key is quality time to get to know colleagues as opposed to merely increasing face time or forcing people to come into work when it’s not necessary. 

Tech connection 

Quality interactions will be increasingly important as generative AI-driven systems and other advanced technology settle in as our work buddies. Technology is often seen as a root cause of workplace loneliness, but techno optimists say that’s a limited view. They point to a new mash-up of technology — wearable biosensors, video recognition software and machine learning analysis of text and images — that can evaluate the emotional state of workers. 

Known as Emotional AI, these systems can read facial expressions, body language, eye movement, tone of voice, respiration and heart rate, as well as assess images and words using machine learning techniques. Soon, lonely workers will have nowhere to hide. 

This is not sci-fi. The technologies exist and are starting to roll out, albeit not as full systems. The Japanese company Empath, for example, created voice recognition software that allows managers to read the moods of employees to assess their well-being. Empath has been adopted by more than 1,500 customers in more than 50 countries. 

Emotional AI takes Big Brother to a new level of control and paranoia. But we shouldn’t necessarily write off the therapeutic value of technology. There is a study that shows how AI can be used to encourage people to seek out warm-hearted connections at work. In a lab setting, one group of college students had one-on-one conversations with a virtual human named Ellie about the importance of high-quality social interactions. Ellie encouraged the students to connect with people, especially those they didn’t already know. Another group of students talked with Ellie about the importance of diaphragmatic breathing. 

The lab participants took Ellie’s advice to heart. The following day, the first group reported more interactions with strangers and higher-quality connections during those interactions. Two days later, during an in-lab conversation with a stranger, the first group responded to their conversation partners faster than students in the second group — a sign of a high-quality connection between strangers. 

Whether virtual humans can ever provide the sort of empathy and succour that an actual human can provide is an open question. Plenty of evidence across disciplines suggests that employees view AI systems as co-workers, treat them as “social agents” and hold them to the same social expectations as they would to another person. Perhaps a workplace Ellie can help the lonely-hearted. 

In the here and now, we can hope that colleagues or bosses can be counted on for support, but the reality is that when we’re lonely, we tend to avoid sharing our feelings with others. We retreat from our social networks. We cyberloaf for distraction, further setting ourselves apart. Like the struggling woman who reached out to O’Grady before a development session, we believe our work colleagues are doing just fine and won’t understand our feelings. 

One benefit of the increased attention on loneliness in the workplace is that it gives the lie to such thinking.