Loneliness at work: Does feeling lonely impact your performance?


Loneliness, defined as an unpleasant emotional condition where a person feels estranged from or rejected by others and feels deprived of secure and close relationships in his/her social environment, is an emotion that is particularly relevant to work. This is because loneliness is an inherently interpersonal and relational emotion and the quality of employees’ interpersonal relationships has been shown to have a significant impact on how they perceive and connect with their organizations.

Drawing on a number of compelling arguments from evolutionary psychology, recent studies have argued that people have an innate, primary drive to form social bonds and mutual caring commitments and they are adversely influenced when these social bonds are severed. Establishing and maintaining social bonds at work, however, may not be easy, for reasons that are both personal and due to the structure of organizations. Indeed, the findings of a recent study suggest that about 53 % of the people in the U.S. felt intensely lonely in their public lives.

Despite the pervasiveness of loneliness in work life and its potential linkages with important organizational outcomes, the existing research in organizational behavior provides us with little theoretical or empirical insights about why and how employees’ feelings of loneliness could influence their job attitudes and performance. Join me as we discuss and shed light on this important yet unexplored workplace phenomenon.

Work is natural place to build relationships or even friendships because people spend so much of their quality time there. However, you do not have to be “friends” with others to have satisfying, meaningful and productive relationships. The primary of the workplace and the “team” is to produce results. However, the more collaborative the workplace and its relationships, the more the kind of robust, healthy debate that leads to solving difficult problems takes place. The leader sets the tone. Either leaders understand the value of promoting a climate of collaborative relationships or they don’t. Those that do will find that their direct reports will be intrinsically motivated and initiate problem solving with their colleagues. That kind of collaboration – promoted by the leader – is certain to heighten satisfaction and reduce loneliness.

There are different kinds of colleagues. One that engages only for tasks, the others may engage both professionally and socially. There will be colleagues who will engage with their phones in open kitchen environment while you are sitting right across from them, while others would leave their phones at their desks and will engage in the conversation. Engage and invest in the latter group and do not bother with the former.

Loneliness can be found in multi-generational workplaces. Baby boomer and millennials are different in many ways including communication styles, life goals, and different ideas of a positive and fun work environment. Political correctness in the workplace is a requirement but makes for relationships that are very corporate and less personal. We are losing important components of our humanity.

Janet Choi writes; work is a social thing. It’s done with people, and at the very least, for people. At the same time, you are one person with a job to do. When those personal and social gears are out of alignment, when you’re not connecting with the people you spend so many hours a day with, you get lonely.

Loneliness seems like such an intensely personal, private problem, but it’s much more than that. Loneliness and isolation is a collective issue. And at work, loneliness is yet another effect of the inadequate attention paid to the human side of getting stuff done together.

Whether it’s the inertia of interacting with the same people every day in a way that’s unique from all your other relationships, there’s a prevailing sense that work is this realm where you just deal, that it’s not something that you can improve. While we understand the prioritization of personal friends and loved ones, we often miss out on meaningful interaction with the person down the hall, focus on growing our supposed professional network more than we look next to us to grow higher quality connections.

When you start feeling isolated at work, you also get demoralized and detached, perhaps even depressed. In the first study to empirically analyze the effect of loneliness on work performance, Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik examined the experiences of 672 employees in 143 teams. They found that indeed loneliness led to withdrawal from work, weaker productivity, motivation, and performance. Importantly, the study also showed that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum that “co-workers can recognize this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness.”

Loneliness is a personal emotion, but it’s not a private concern. The effect of loneliness reverberates, becoming a concern for the group, the organization, the community.

In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write about one of the vital ingredients of what makes us fulfilled and flourish in our work — the nourishment factor of human connection. Recognition and gratitude, encouragement, emotional support, and camaraderie are all elements of the nourishment factor — aspects of work that so often are treated as mere window dressing, as spiritless exercises or tired, meaningless buzzwords, and as far as you can get from true priorities.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, and in what seems to be an ever-head-down, busily streaming life, that seems a harder truth than ever. Your wholehearted attention is how you connect to others, to the world around you, while our pragmatic attitudes about work have little room to even consider generosity.

The nourishment factor — these acts of generosity, of giving and receiving our full attention, expressing gratitude and providing support — feeds our cores, makes us more resilient and enduring, helps us to strive.

Symptoms and Solutions

Gurdeep Pandher advice that this phenomenon can be caused by a wide variety of different reasons, from private family matters to mental illnesses. Abusive relationships, sickness, loss of a relationship, death of a loved one, financial worries, dominating boss/colleague, discrimination at work, work pressure, worries of children’s education/career, immigration issues (mostly in people who move to other countries for a better life), and other home based factors play major roles in the development of loneliness. Most of the time, because of the way the setting is structured, diagnosing and helping a co-worker during work hours is not appropriate or possible. Therefore, there remain only two options for alleviating the burden for those suffering: either prevent the situation or help to tame the consequences outside of a scheduled work day.

In order to put the first choice into action, one must evaluate what policies are preventing meaningful connections in the first place. From forcing workers to compete with each other for their salaries to establishing rigid and unnatural privacy through the use of thick cubicle dividers, anything that promotes isolation will need to be noted. After possible causes are listed, choose one main issue to be presented to a superior or whoever is in charge of managing the company’s rules. Be succinct and straightforward, suggesting solutions instead of complaining mindlessly. They might not immediately adopt the idea, but planting the seed in their mind is a good start regardless. Be prepared to champion the idea that you suggest. If you want more collaboration in the office have a way to collaborate and offer to be the team lead.

At the same time, a more personal approach needs to be taken with people who are already feeling alone. There is no need to take them to a fancy restaurant (they are not charity cases) or force them to admit their personal problems (definitely crossing the line); but feel free to bring them along when another coworker is throwing a celebration or a group of people who are heading to the diner downstairs. Silent gestures are a powerful way to communicate to someone that they matter. Your actions speak much louder than your words. Instead of asking a coworker if he/she wants a coffee or tea just bring them their favorite drink with a smile. Tell them when you thought of them while reading an interesting article or saw a project similar to something they have been working on. Introduce them to initiatives in the office that they might be interested in participating in. For instance, if a thought leadership team is being formed and they could offer insight let them know you believe that they would be a good fit. Some offices have brought in masseuses instructors. This kind of meditation and relaxation can be positive for everyone and give people something to look forward to. It also offers the physical touch that humans require in a manner appropriate for the office.

Making sure everyone feels included is a good way to boost positivity and initiate the process of bonding as a team. As demonstrated, workplace loneliness is a serious problem that is barely noticeable and can be difficult to address in a formal situation. However, it has negative impacts on productivity, creates tension, and can even lead to mental and physical illnesses. Therefore, everyone has a moral obligation to help those in need by telling them they are welcome at the place where they spend one-third or more of their day in. Improving a situation rarely comes from the efforts of just the CEO or the president of the company; it often is the result of everyday workers seeking to make a difference concludes Pandher. Therefore, let us all get involved in making the workplace loneliness free for a better productivity and performance, the power is yours.

The author is a Management Consultant l Spint Consult Limited.

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