Workplace Wellbeing

Why Tackling Loneliness Could Be Your Secret Weapon for Employee Well-Being

Loneliness is more common among employees than you might think, and it can significantly impact their health, productivity, and overall well-being. Discover how many of your team members might be feeling isolated and learn practical, compassionate ways to help them feel more connected.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    Loneliness can be deadly, and isolation can make us feel insignificant. We've all known the ache of wanting to connect with another person.

    Even though this feeling is relatable, it's not something we usually consider when considering workplace well-being. But, a recent Gallup survey found that 1 in 5 employees globally experienced loneliness a lot during the previous day. 

    That’s a considerable number of people. But why does this matter for organizations? The effects of loneliness can be profound for both physical and mental health, productivity, burnout, and retention.

    Research indicates that loneliness is a risk factor similar to smoking or drinking alcohol and that genes associated with cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory diseases are expressed in those who are lonelier.

    Do you know how many of your employees feel isolated? How many are struggling with loneliness in silence?

    Loneliness and our deep need for connection

    Take a moment and think about what loneliness means to you. What kind of situations and feelings come up?

    I think about not having someone to talk to when I’m struggling or wanting to be authentic and share with another person, only to realize that’s not an option.

    If you ask 100 people what loneliness means to them, you’ll likely get many different answers.

    But generally speaking, loneliness can be described as a lack of connection with other people. When we feel lonely, there may be different causes and various feelings in play, but essentially, there's a disconnect between our desired need for relational intimacy and the level of intimacy we're getting from other people.

    Loneliness is common

    Recently, the Surgeon General declared loneliness a public health concern due to its widespread occurrence and effects on health.

    Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report uncovered that 20% of employees worldwide experience loneliness regularly. Furthermore:

    • The percentage is higher for people under 35 and lower for those over 35
    • Remote workers experienced higher levels of loneliness (25%) than on-site employees (16%)
    • A recent APA poll found that 1 in 3 U.S. adults felt lonely every week, and 10% felt lonely every single day

    How many people in your workplace are struggling with this right now?

    The deep links between mental health and physical health

    We know intuitively that loneliness can make us feel bad on an emotional level. But there are also significant physical health risks to chronic loneliness.

    Across measurement approaches, social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. In that same study, one finding jumps out. The health impact of loneliness is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. 

    How about the mental health impact? Chronic loneliness and social isolation can:

    Research strongly suggests that loneliness is hugely impactful on people’s physical and mental health. So, let’s consider how some of these impacts might appear in the workplace.

    How loneliness affects employees

    There are many negative effects of loneliness on employees. There are links between loneliness and poorer job performance, along with stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness, costing employers an estimated $154 billion annually in the U.S. 

    On the other hand, strong social connections at work are linked with employee engagement, creativity, and better job performance. According to Gallup’s global survey results, engaged employees are also 64% less likely to experience loneliness. Social support at work is also a buffer against chronic work stress and burnout.

    All of this research is pointing to something substantial. That social connection is deeply linked with several organizational priorities, including: 

    • Job performance
    • Healthcare spending
    • Well-being
    • Engagement
    • Mental health

    Can you think of a time when social isolation played a role in your own life, the lives of people you know, or within your organization?

    How workplace leaders can offer support

    Let’s acknowledge that workplaces alone aren’t going to cure loneliness. Disconnection is complex and underlies much of the modern world. 

    However, considering that many of us spend a significant portion of our lives with our colleagues, why not take action where possible?

    For such a big topic, I think it’s always important to start by recognizing that tackling this issue requires a holistic framework, including organizational and individual approaches.

    On a fundamental level, Gallup researchers found that employees experienced reduced loneliness in places with labor laws regarding fair wages, safe work, family responsibilities, and maternity leave. 

    Unsurprisingly, these factors affect loneliness. Let’s keep going and think about how else to approach this.

    Workplace culture

    Ask yourself if your culture feels that social connection is essential. Do employees feel humanized, like their well-being matters?

    Social connection can be a strategic workplace priority. That sounds great, but what are some concrete ways of doing this?

    Learning how to connect can be powerful

    Driving social connection and combating loneliness can be learned through training and education, especially for leaders and managers. People may not instinctively understand how to do this within an organization. That’s okay. It can be learned with buy-in from the top down.

    There is something really powerful about a simple pause in the workday to check up on someone who seems quieter than usual and then listen fully in a way that shows you want to know what they’re experiencing. Or to follow up when someone discloses their struggles, going that extra mile to make sure they’re getting the help they need.

    Working in such an environment significantly mitigates feelings of isolation, knowing that people care about you enough to put effort into listening and offering help.

    Give people space to build connection

    Employees who don’t have the time, space, and energy to build relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and partners are much more likely to feel isolated and burned out. How can we think about making space for connection?

    • Take some time to educate employees about the effects of social isolation 
    • Create physical and digital spaces where people can connect 
    • Offer mentorship programs with the goal of relationship-building
    • Encourage and reward volunteering, possibly giving employees a time when they can engage with their community and each other
    • Ask! Employees likely have thoughts about social connection at work and may have great ideas

    Pushing social connection at work can seem disingenuous when it’s not backed up by genuine care. But as part of a holistic support system, it can do wonders.

    Consider your organization. What creative ways of driving connections work for your people? You know them best.

    ERGs and other peer groups

    A very tangible method of creating social connections is offering employee resource groups (ERGs), which give members time and a space to meet. 

    You might create an ERG based solely on community or connection, something people crave in many contexts. 

    This ERG might partner with other ERGs, allowing people to create relationships based on various lived experiences, circumstances, or identities. 

    Address loneliness through essential needs initiatives

    Another strategy might include social connectedness as part of a mental health-focused EAP. 

    For example, Spring Health now offers an essential needs screening as part of its mental health solution.

    When a new member takes the initial mental health assessment, questions about social connection and other essential needs are asked. 

    If the assessment shows that the person is isolated, they can be linked with vetted community resources that address social isolation.

    Mental health support

    It’s important to note that chronic social isolation may have underlying causes due to mental health conditions. People experiencing anxiety or depression may be more prone to isolating themselves in response, but as we’ve discussed, isolation can also cause mental health challenges.

    This is why connecting individuals with a comprehensive mental health solution can be so helpful. 

    Therapy and/or coaching may help treat the underlying causes of social isolation. 

    There’s no easy answer, but there’s room for progress

    Addressing loneliness has real benefits, such as engagement, burnout prevention, and overall well-being. 

    Plus, when we address loneliness, we're also tackling its impact on mental and physical health, which can lead to lower healthcare costs. It's a smart move for both individual well-being and organizational success.

    We can create more connected, community-driven workplaces with consistent effort and small steps. After all, don't we all want to feel like we belong?

    Help your employee thrive by exploring six strategies to boost their connection and reduce loneliness at work, enhancing their mental and physical health. 

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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