Loneliness at Work: 5 Ways to Support Employees

As the working world becomes more remote, loneliness at work is fast-becoming a key wellbeing concern for organisations. This challenge is also receiving increased attention and urgency beyond the workplace, featuring in worldwide wellbeing campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Week.

Research also shows that an increasing numbers of employees are experiencing loneliness at work. Clearly, employers must support their people.

With that in mind, we’ve put together this article to help you – as an employer or leader responsible for wellbeing – to reduce loneliness in your workplace. You’ll learn:

  1. What is loneliness?
  2. How common is loneliness at work?
  3. What causes loneliness at work?
  4. Why is reducing loneliness at work important?
  5. How to recognise loneliness at work
  6. 5 ways to prevent loneliness at work

What is loneliness?

People experience loneliness when they perceive that they are alone or being isolated by and from other people.

Many people associate loneliness with simply being alone, but this isn’t the whole picture. It can also be thought of as a state of mind, where someone feels like they’re on their own.

Loneliness can affect anyone regardless of their role or level of seniority. They could be surrounded by people or working as part of a big team. But if there’s an absence of meaningful, human connection, then they could still feel lonely.

How common is loneliness at work?

Loneliness at work is perhaps much more common than you might think with research from TotalJobs finding that 3 in 5 employees feel lonely at work.

During the pandemic, the shift to remote work caused those numbers to increase, as many who worked from home were more socially vulnerable.

These statistics are concerning, especially as various mental health disorders linked to loneliness, such as depression and anxiety, are also widespread among our employees. Champion Health revealed the extent of this issue in the Workplace Health Report.

As many organisations continue to invest in home and hybrid working, it is also worth noting research by Gallup, which found that those who only work remotely are more likely to feel lonely.

What causes loneliness at work?

There are a wide range of causes of workplace loneliness, each of which will affect every employee differently. The most obvious current cause is remote working, as shown by Gallup’s research.

However, as we mentioned above, someone does not have to be alone to feel isolated – even those employees who work in busy offices may experience loneliness. For example, if an employee feels disconnected from their team, or the wider organisation, then that may lead to feelings of isolation.

Negative impacts of work can also exacerbate loneliness. For example, if someone is experiencing work-related stress, that may lead them to feel isolated from others, particularly if they don’t feel they can seek support from within their organisation.

The causes of workplace loneliness may also be external. If an employee feels isolated in their personal lives, then they may carry that into their professional lives.

Why is reducing loneliness at work important?

Research into the risks associated with employee loneliness reveals why it’s so important that employers tackle it.

Loneliness at work can bring significant costs for both employers and their employees: the former is disadvantaged by a less productive and engaged workforce, and the latter from poorer wellbeing.

Loneliness at work is associated with various health risks, including increased stress, impacts on sleep and a higher risk of burnout. In fact, the health risks of loneliness and social isolation are so severe that, over time, they may cause more damage to your body and brain than smoking and alcohol.

In terms of professional performance, the cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5 billion every year. These costs are due to a combination of, among other things, reduced productivity, higher staff turnover and increased absenteeism.

In contrast, meaningful connections have been associated with higher quality of work and increased employee engagement.

How to recognise loneliness at work

Loneliness is an extremely subjective experience, so there are no set rules to follow to about what it may look like. To further complicate the issue, many employees may also hide their feelings of loneliness, which can make them harder to identify.

As a leader or people manager, the best approach to recognising loneliness is to be proactive about getting to know and really understand your people. If they act differently, you will be able to identify these unusual behaviours and intervene more quickly.

Look out for changes in a person’s behaviour, and their body language. For example, if a usually extroverted individual seems withdrawn or quiet, or a previously engaged employee suddenly seems detached from their work, then there may be an issue.

If you recognise the symptoms of loneliness in one of your employees, then take steps immediately to support them. We will detail this further in this article.

5 ways to reduce loneliness at work

Many employees believe that workplace loneliness carries a stigma, which discourages them from seeking support when they need it.

Therefore, the onus is often on leaders and people managers to be proactive about supporting employees who are experiencing loneliness at work.

With that in mind, here are five ways to reduce loneliness at work for employers:

  • Build a psychologically safe workplace
  • Utilising your 1:1s
  • Checking in on remote workers
  • Reinforcing relationships between colleagues
  • Signposting employees to services that can help

Read on for a more detailed look at the steps you can take to support your people.

1. Build a psychologically safe workplace

Your workplace culture can promote isolation or connection. To ensure that yours does the latter, prioritise psychological safety.

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees feel able to express themselves without fear that others will think less of them. When this is the case, employees will feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, expressing concerns and admitting vulnerability.

These are all forms of interpersonal risk-taking. As well as being key to reducing employee loneliness, high levels of interpersonal risk-taking are also a hallmark of high-performing organisations, which is demonstrated in this landmark study by Google.

However, employees are unlikely to take these risks unless they receive encouragement from leaders and co-workers. If this is not the case, and these interpersonal connections with other team members are lacking, your people may be more susceptible to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Build a psychologically safe workplace by:

  • Making sure your team knows you are available
  • Praising effort, not just results
  • Acknowledging your own fallibility

For an in-depth guide, read this article on building psychological safety at work, or watch the video below.

2. Utilise your 1:1s

Staff appraisals and 1:1s provide an excellent setting in which to check in on your employees, so don’t miss out on this opportunity.

During your 1:1s. encourage your employee to discuss any struggles they are experiencing, and any ideas they have for how you can help.

You may feel that this is crossing a personal boundary, but employees often want their leaders to take an active interest in their personal life, especially if it is affecting their performance in work.

Talking about your employees’ mental health during 1:1s will ensure you are able to spot struggling employees and intervene to help them.

However, these conversations will only be possible if you create a culture of openness. Read this article for further guidance on talking about mental health in a 1:1.

3. Remember remote workers

As the studies we mentioned above show, remote workers are particularly susceptible to workplace loneliness, so be sure to check in on them regularly.

A great way of doing this is simply spending 5 minutes at beginning or end of a call to ask your people how they’re doing, or chat about their day.

You should also organise regular check-ins, where you encourage your remote workers to discuss any concerns they have or struggles they’re experiencing.

And if you can, occasionally break away from the computer screen and pick up the phone. Phone calls are more personal, so will be a more effective way of reassuring remote employees that they still matter.

4. Reinforce relationships between colleagues

You can’t force colleagues to be friends, but you can take steps to reinforce relationship-building amongst your team members.

Create opportunities for collaboration by introducing or promoting shared activities, such as workshops or mentoring programmes. Activities such as these will help to improve the social atmosphere in the workplace while also providing the opportunity for employees to build professional networks

However, employees differ in their preferences for the quantity and quality of social contact and relationships in the workplace, so ensure that these shared activities are optional.

5. Know where to signpost

Loneliness can become a serious health issue, and it is sometimes beyond the scope of a people manager to provide the support required.

When this is the case, it is crucial that your leaders and managers know the where to signpost the employee for further support.

These avenues of support could include internal wellbeing offerings, such as EAPs, or external support services. There are some fantastic organisations who will be able to help, including:

For more information on how to support struggling colleagues, here are two resources you can use and share within your team:

Be a forward-thinking employer

Forward-thinking employers lead the way on tackling major social challenges. And right now, research suggests that loneliness in the workplace is an issue that requires a response.

According to Public Health England, relationships, along with our health, are the two most significant determinants of wellbeing in the workplace.

Therefore, by supporting colleagues to build healthy relationships and social connections within work, employers can cultivate a more productive and resilient workforce. Simultaneously, they can demonstrate to employees how much they care about their personal and professional wellbeing.

Download The Workplace Health Report

Other content Karsten has contributed to:

12 Minutes of Workplace Health Podcast Episode #21

Boosting your wellbeing with nature

Eating Disorders in the Workplace

Other content Joe Pindar has contributed to:

12 Minutes of Workplace Health Podcast Episode #21

Boosting your wellbeing with nature

Eating Disorders in the Workplace