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Loneliness Hitting Employees Hard at Work

Recent study findings from Perceptyx indicate that more in-office time may not solve the growing problem.

By Maggie Mancini

America’s loneliness crisis is coming to work, with serious consequences for both employees and employers, according to new research from Perceptyx. More than four in 10 employees report feeling “very” or “somewhat” isolated at work, according to the study.  

Men are twice as likely as women to say they are very lonely, and senior leaders are twice as likely as lower-level managers for individual contributors to feel that way. Generational differences also play a role, with Gen Z and millennial employees feeling more isolated at work than Gen X or boomers.  

Loneliness is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes. Workers who feel alone are twice as likely to be disengaged. They are nearly five times more likely to struggle with productivity and between four and six times more likely to have trouble sleeping, engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms, be bothered by pain, and behave poorly to family and friends due to stress at work.  

“Employees experiencing workplace loneliness are likely to experience negative consequences, both at work and in their personal lives,” says Emily Killham, senior director of people analytics, research, and insights at Perceptyx. “When employees don’t feel support at work or that they’re part of a greater mission, or when they don’t know how or where they fit in, this is when loneliness flourishes.”  

In contrast, Killham says that those who feel connected are twice as likely to experience no workplace loneliness. The good news for organizations, she says, is that what builds connections isn’t a lot of new programs, it’s a lot of what has worked for many years: great people management, treating people with respect, building a healthy culture where workplace stress can be tackled together, and setting people up with a shared future in the organization. 

The data suggests returning to the office won’t solve the problem. While remote workers report the highest levels of loneliness, only 35% of “very lonely” remote workers think more time in the office will improve their condition. Additionally, it’s hybrid workers – who work in the office for part of the week and the rest at home – rather than in-person employees, who are the least isolated of all.  

“Employers need to strive to build genuine connections with remote workers,” says Killham. “The link between remote work and loneliness is complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create a culture of trust and support.” 

Creating that culture, she says, is pivotal in ensuring that remote workers feel that the time they share with in-person employees is genuine. Killham suggests that employers create situations where their remote and office workers can work together to solve common problems and build real connections. 

Ironically, meetings might make the problem worse. Employees with meeting-heavy schedules are twice as likely to say they’re “very lonely” as those with fewer meetings, the study finds.  

“When employees were sent home at the start of the pandemic, organizations developed a bad habit of equating proximity with connection,” Killham says. “Without physical proximity, they substituted meetings. Overscheduling and forced connections lead management to reexamine how to create connections through technology. Loneliness is a connection issue.”  

Killham says that it’s important for organizations to create a psychologically safe environment where employees can make mistakes and fix them together, share values, and have purposeful interactions instead of bringing people together to share information and then sending them out alone. 

Rather than focusing on time in the office or number of meetings, Perceptyx recommends employers focus on the quality of interaction. Employees who feel appreciated at work or are motivated by their company’s values are more than twice as likely to report no loneliness, and those with a good connection to their manager are nearly twice as likely.  

Organizations should also focus their efforts on the newest employees, as workers who have been in their job for six months or less are the most isolated, but after six months, these levels became consistent regardless of the employee’s tenure.  

“Employers are noticing a problem with the connectedness of their workforce, and their first instinct is to bring people back into the office to fix the problem of loneliness,” Killham says. “They aren’t all wrong. Those workers who are fully remote report the greatest feelings of loneliness. Surprisingly though, those working on-site each day are not the least lonely. Many organizations have pushed for a return to the physical workplace, only to have those employees close their office doors, avoid shared spaces and meals together, or use headphones to help them focus.”  

These acts of being “alone but together,” Killham says, don’t build real connections any more than back-to-back digital meetings. As companies move into 2024, it’s pivotal for them to foster a culture that provides opportunities for real collaboration and a shared sense of purpose. Taking the necessary steps to identify and act on mitigating the root causes of loneliness helps eliminate that feeling for employees while also creating a more engaged, productive, and mentally healthy workforce.  

“Once identified, it’s up to organizations to act on the solutions they deem effective in combating this culprit taking over the workforce,” Killham says. “Tackling workplace loneliness should be a priority for everyone, employers and employees alike. The time to act is now.” 

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