Have you ever felt alone and disconnected at work, even though you have people around you? It’s something I’m hearing more and more, particularly from leaders who are feeling exposed and isolated the further they progress in their careers. But I wonder how many of us stop to notice the impact loneliness might be having on us. Here we explore loneliness in our professional lives and offer a few suggestions which might help you, or your organisation become connected in a more meaningful way.

What’s the scale of loneliness in the UK?

With 45% of adults in England feeling occasionally, sometimes, or often lonely, equating to 25 million people, it’s clear the loneliness issue is immense. The cold facts are overwhelming when you begin to contemplate the implications to us as individuals and a collective. Loneliness has been named by many as the largest health concern we face, and the cause of many of the mental health conditions we are increasingly experiencing. 

We know that loneliness has a critical impact on our health, with an increased risk of death, and puts individuals at risk of depression, cognitive decline, and dementia. But loneliness is nonselective and impacts all ages, and it’s unlikely we will walk through life without ever feeling lonely ourselves. We might predict or assume that at certain points in our lives we’re more suspectable to feeling lonely, perhaps at school or college when finding out about ourselves, at a relationship closure, with the loss of a loved one or even relocation. But do we anticipate loneliness showing up in our careers?

Often, when we start out in our early careers, we expect to have transient periods of loneliness as we find our feet in the professional world, knowing and trusting that this will change as we develop our experience and network. But few predict the long periods of loneliness which show up when you start to climb the management ladder, or when you go out alone as an entrepreneur, or when you sit at the top in the senior leadership team or as the CEO?  

What’s the impact of loneliness?

So often we determine our success (and potential happiness) by how high we can go and how much we earn, and never imagine what professional loneliness might feel like and what else these feelings and related behaviours might end up impacting. We know that loneliness costs the UK economy an estimated £2.5 billion a year, with staff turnover, low wellbeing and productivity driving much of that figure. 

With at least half of our total waking hours of any given working day at work, our working routines naturally fill a significant proportion of our overall lives; offering structure, a sense of belonging, purpose and identity, and the potential for flourishing social interactions and meaningful experiences. But what if we are surrounded by people in our careers and yet still experience the undesired and very personal experience of profound loneliness?

According to new research, 72% of global workers say they feel lonely at least monthly, while 55% say they feel it at least weekly. We all know good physical health is important to thrive, and we are getting better at managing our mental health, but do we realise that having meaningful human to human connection is imperative to sustain our positive wellbeing? 

So what might contribute to loneliness at work?

Today, many of us are well versed in being a remote worker, barely looking at others squarely in the face, and consequently losing connection to our own intuitive internal radars of noticing how clients and team members might be feeling or responding to us. Most of our work communication takes place online, so it comes as no surprise that we can interact with people all day yet still feel lonely. 

What’s the impact for organisations?

Research has shown that lonely workers report feeling less productive and engaged and they are five times more likely to miss work due to stress. Loneliness lowers retention rates and those feeling lonely spend twice as much time thinking about leaving as their non-lonely counterparts and are at a higher risk of experiencing depression and burnout. The ripple effect on teams, managers and the wider professional community is unknown, yet the conservative cost implications on employers in the private sector is estimated to be over £2.1 billion a year.

Do we invest enough into our relationships at work?

It’s known that having good quality, meaningful connections is associated with better outcomes in terms of productivity, higher wellbeing, and greater engagement. But with careers becoming less predictable and more transitional, does that mean employees and our employers invest less in our relationships at work? Do we unconsciously view these relationships as temporary, not worth the investment, and is this having an impact on loneliness levels being experienced?  

This issue raises many questions, and I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that by drawing some attention to this, it might instigate some valuable conversations within the workplace which look to reduce the stigma around expressing how we might be feeling and encourage meaningful connection through courageous sharing.

How might we manage loneliness at work?

Initially, a degree of personal awareness is necessary – a baseline level of acceptance of being lonely within a current situation and a desire to transition through the feeling and act on it.

I mentioned earlier the seemingly golden ticket of leadership, the promotion you might have been seeking for a while. This new experience often knocks previously ‘confident’ people sideways when they are no longer party to office banter, WhatsApp groups and floor plate gossip, and have to make some uncomfortable decisions. They might worry about what people think, ‘am I too big for my boots’, and believe they are no longer liked.

The transition through to being an inspirational leader takes a great deal of personal growth and undoubtedly will lead you out of your comfort zone. This can be a lonely and prolonged journey of discomfort, and one where even if you want to ask for help, you are fearful of looking like you are not coping and so often remain in the loneliness space longer than necessary.  

What might you do to help yourself?

Make a meaningful connection with a coach or mentor! Be your own enabler, invest in your own development. Don’t wait to be offered help: request it upfront and if met with resistance, do it anyway. We shy away from personal investment in our development, we hold many limiting beliefs about it. But what are we really saying? “I’m not worth it”. If not for you, do it for your team, your colleagues, your friends, and family as they are the ones who are also feeling the impact of your loneliness. By investing in your own growth and inviting in more compassion to your situation, you are in effect leading by example, offering others permission and inspiration to do the same. There is no shame in working on being the best you can be.

What’s the impact of asking for support?

When clients are experiencing leadership loneliness, I sometimes ask them to describe what ‘inspirational leadership’ really means: what does it look like, sound like, and feel like? What sort of leader do they want to be? We go there together and get underneath all the periphery noise. This is profoundly important work as it offers the manager/leader space to be their whole truth, with no pretence, no pressure, no shame. When leaders are in a space of clarity about who they are, how they want to lead and what they want to bring, their reconnection to themselves flows into every conversation and decision. From this place there is room for more meaningful connection with others, making them open and approachable, ultimately bolstering productivity and motivation and wellbeing within the workplace.

When working under a leader who’s feeling isolated, alone and disconnected and who possibly hasn’t identified their own loneliness, you might experience rash decision making, reactive statements and dismissive behaviours. Creating disharmony within the workplace, lack of trust and impacting productivity and staff wellbeing. This is often symptomatic of a lack of belonging and connection which in turn is linked to loneliness. Each of us is human, needing meaningful connection, and truly inspirational leaders are incredibly self-aware, they quickly identify their needs and take action to make the necessary changes.

What might organisations do to assist with loneliness at work?

I believe there needs to be a genuine level of acceptance that within any organisation, no matter how big or small, there’s likely to be several employees feeling lonely, and this is having a negative and possibly unseen impact on the business. But organisations need to pair this knowing with a desire to support employees and their wellbeing by investing time and resources into supporting them.

Small changes, big impacts – sometimes it goes back to basics – four ways you might try

1: Get connected: real communication with real people

Having good quality, meaningful connections is linked to better outcomes in terms of work quality and greater engagement. 

We often go into autopilot to get through the inbox, not investing in our replies and getting through them as quickly as possible. We all know what it feels like to receive a cold reply, and how many of us then allow it to feed into our unconscious, adding to the bucket of insecurity and isolation.

One simple way to avoid energy-depleting assumptions and save time, is to occasionally pick up the phone! Save the email/text inducing assumptions, tone complexities and energy-sapping confusion for another day and invest in the call. Take a moment to check in with that person, notice yourself in the conversation. What else are you sensing? Call it out and get curious, enquire about the other person more than the task. 

Relationships remove isolation but they take investment, and that meaningful work is down to you. By investing in these moments, you will be open to new acquaintances which might forge new friendships. If you are noticing resistance reading this, get curious with yourself and look to understand what lies under the resistance. 

2: Be the initiator: set the example for others to follow

Mix it up, take some of your meetings outside, or arrive early for Zoom/Teams and initiate informal chat. It calls on you here to set the example and fill the seemingly awkward beginning. By taking meetings outside or within a neutral space, you will automatically relax, enabling freer conversation. Perhaps practise by thinking about the person you are meeting and plan where you would prefer to be. Take ownership of your surroundings and use them to your advantage. When you are in your best space, you will project more openness to connect.

3: Notice others and act on it: take the lead and be the one to check-in

Take the lead and notice your peers, the quiet days, the changes in mood, the shift in body language. Remember to act with compassion for yourself and others – recognising the sharper, the less approachable, perhaps even the overzealous, might be feeling lonely too and are compensating in their reactive response. No one has ever harmed anyone by consistently and authentically checking in – maybe just bringing a coffee to a desk with a smile, or sending a well-intentioned voice note. It’s the smallness of genuine action that people feel…often not what you say. When we give without expectation of return, we undoubtedly will be reciprocated in some positive way – trust this.

4: Meaningful management: lead the change

Crucial to any organisation’s success is the people and how the management lead. Are they authentic in their word; do you believe them?  The senior leaders will undoubtedly be feeling periods of isolation and yet are expected to deliver results. There is no room for failure and with their circle of meaningful connection significantly reduced, the isolation is real. 

Perhaps with more senior leaders stepping up and being braver; creating new ways of working; endorsing sharing environments; expressing their own stories around loneliness; being vulnerable, open, and approachable; and leading with compassion, which is not only heard but felt throughout the organisation at large, we might begin to see a cultural shift. 

There are practical ways to lead by example, such as being open about working flexibly, by encouraging email ‘off’ times, or creating community areas where employees can congregate without fear of judgment of not working.

Accepting that loneliness in the workplace exists is an important first step. We then need to look for ways to proactively support managers, not just with dry training courses but by partnering leaders with professional coaches or mentors to support their early leadership development, to help prevent the expanse and impact of loneliness and avoid burnout. 

“Get to know yourself well

to be able to get to know

others better”

Essentially, organisations can create opportunities to remove the stigma around loneliness. They can support awareness and wellbeing of individuals and groups, creating means for sharing, connection and endorsing these initiatives. It is often the leader/manager who might be the first point of contact for an employee when brave enough to share their truth.  Managers need to be confident and capable of supporting their employees, with training on how to listen well, how to hold space effectively and receiving suitable supervision themselves to unburden them from the responsibility, along with recognition of this skillset and its effective contribution to the overall success of the business.

There is more we can do collectively and individually to create meaningful human connection at work. We are responsible for how we chose to show up for ourselves and each other and we can choose to act on this. Importantly know you are not alone, it’s okay to feel this way and there are ways to move through it. If you are curious as to how coaching might support you, feel free to get in touch. And if you need support right now, here are some organisations which might help:

Images: Pixabay / Rewild the Frame Ltd