Alone in a Crowd - Workplace Loneliness and Its Impact #SHRM19



I remember the first time I met her. She started off as an intern and within three months she was hired to join our team full time. That's how good she was! Over a period of four years we became best friends. She was my ride to the office, my coffee break buddy, lunch partner, after office snack pal...the list goes on. She was my pillar of support and we would talk to each other about our personal life, work frustrations, incidents with colleagues/managers, suggestions/advice for work issues...there isn't anything that we haven't talked about I guess.

The year 2016 changed everything. I was pregnant with my daughter and she had to move to Dubai to join her husband. It was time to say goodbye with hope that our paths would cross again. We were happy for each other as both of us were entering new phases of life, but the days after she left is when I truly felt the workplace loneliness. I felt so alone. Suddenly, I didn't have a coffee break buddy and I started drinking coffee at my desk. Work became dull, people became uninteresting, jokes were not funny without having someone else to laugh with you. Fortunately, I started my maternity leave within a month. But those 30 days were really difficult. 

A recent study has shown that 40 percent of adults in America report feeling lonely. The term called 'Workplace loneliness' has become a topic of discussion in the corporate world. In fact there is a session on Workplace Loneliness is Killing Us' by Stuart Chittenden - Founder and Principal of Squish Talks at upcoming SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition 2019.

Workplace loneliness is not something that has occurred in a fortnight. This epidemic has been slowly rising and following factors have contributed to its growth:

  • Technology: With the advancement of technology, it is easy to connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere. The advent of social media has changed the game of social interactions, networking and even dating. Atop of all this, people tend to forget that in real life they are not meeting any of their friends. It's all messages, emails, chats and hours of browsing. The actual human touch is missing and loneliness slowly creeps in.
  • Change in jobs: Years ago, there lived a generation who used to work for the same employer until their retirement. Coworkers were closer than family relatives and deep friendships flourished at the office. People were teary-eyed at retirement/farewell parties. And today, the average time an employee stays at same company is less than two years. It becomes extremely difficult to have a meaningful relation in such a fast-paced life. 
  • Flexible work options: With changes in technology and digital transformation, employees are given flexibility to choose work hours. The work from home option is a life saver when commuting takes hours. For added flexibility, there is always option to work as a freelancer and choose projects based on preference. Even at the office or during commutes, people normally wear headphones which gives a feeling that the person doesn't want to be disturbed and hence not approachable.

    How to overcome workplace loneliness

    There is a reason why employee engagement is considered a crucial indicator in workplace surveys. It gives tons of insights into emotional intelligence and the emotional well-being of employees. More and more companies are coming up with focused efforts like those mentioned below to engage employees and to mitigate workplace loneliness.

    • Interest clubs: One of the most effective ways to battle loneliness is to be part of an interest club. It gives a sense of belonging and it also helps to nurture the passion/hobbies of employees. Various clubs for sports, dance, music, fitness, photography, literature, travel, etc. can be formed within the company to bring together like-minded people.
    • Manager's role: A manager has a huge influence and plays an important role in the emotional well-being of an employee. Occasional team lunch/outing, an outdoor activity or even travelling together for business trips can make a big difference. Also, extra effort must be taken to connect with employees working remotely. Make sure to have non-work related conversation with team members. 
    • Working in silos: Collaborative work is a key to business success. Even though open office layouts and open door policies exist, employees still work in invisible silos with less interactions with others. By promoting collaboration, better business outcomes can be achieved and workplace loneliness can be reduced. It's a win-win for all.

    We are underestimating the power of human emotions when the social contact part is neglected. The CNN article "Why Workplace Loneliness is Bad for Business" summarizes that lonely employees:

    • have lower job performance
    • are less committed to the company
    • seem less approachable by coworkers 

    We need human connections more than we think and it holds true irrespective of gender, religion, culture, ethnicity and designation (yes, CEOs feel lonely, too). Building meaningful human relations helps to nurture emotional intelligence (EQ) which in turn influences your relationship with others.

    Writing this blog made me think about the episode from the famous TV show Friends, where Phoebe talks to Earl the supply manager who wants to kill himself because of workplace loneliness (Season 7, Episode 13). We all laughed about Phoebe's predicament, but on a serious note, Earl in that episode, is the epitome of what workplace loneliness can do to a person.


    Originally published on Serendipity of Life blog.



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