Did you know that reducing loneliness at work leads to better business outcomes and more rewarding careers?

Loneliness isn’t just a deeply unpleasant sensation—it’s also a real workplace problem.  Feeling isolated on the job makes people less effective, less engaged, and, as a consequence, less likely to be promoted. Lonely people are generally paid less, leave their jobs sooner, and run a greater risk of burnout.    

According to research by Cigna, more than half of lonely employees said they work inefficiently, and 42% said they were “mentally somewhere else” while at work. Loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually in stress-related absenteeism alone. Managers should be learning what they can do to tackle this widespread issue of workplace loneliness. 

What is loneliness? 

Loneliness is a situation, not a personality trait or emotion, that arises when a person feels their social needs aren’t being met in a specific context. Psychologists describe it as a fear that no one will provide support in a time of need.  

A large group of friends and supporters isn’t required to combat loneliness. For example, Gallup research shows that individuals with even just one good friend at work stay in the job longer, feel more engaged and put in more effort. 

Who does workplace loneliness affect most? 

Everyone experiences bouts of loneliness. But in the workplace, these types of people are more at risk: 

  • People with poor work-life balance.According to psychologist Dr. Marisa G. Franco, this is known as “learned loneliness.” When we work long hours without socializing, we get used to being alone and having unfulfilled social needs. 
  • People from historically excluded and marginalized groups.Studies show this population is especially vulnerable to loneliness, with 75% of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black/African American adults classified as lonely, compared with 50% of all adults, on average. Dealing with code-switching and discrimination at work can make marginalized people feel even more isolated. 
  • Leaders, especially executives. In many workplaces, leaders feel they must act with authority and show no emotional vulnerability, which leads to isolation. 

How to deal with loneliness at work 

Experts say people experiencing loneliness at work can improve their experience with a few actions and a great deal of courage. Even introverts can give these strategies a try:  

  • Turn off the danger reflex. Feelings of isolation trigger the part of the brain that signals danger. It’s important to remember that, according to statistics, nobody is likely to be the only person feeling lonely. 
  • Take the initiative to create connections. Reaching out to a colleague can help—whether it’s to chat about a project, discuss a volunteer opportunity or thank them for helping with a work task. Compliments go a long way to building friendships. And if the chat goes well, they may want to discuss things further. Extroverted salespeople are often easy to approach, as their job is making connections. 
  • Find common ground. Even colleagues separated by position, age, or cultural background can share interests. These are often easy to find on LinkedIn and other social media.  
  • Change where you do your work. Try out libraries or coworking spaces. Nearby colleagues may be open to joining. 
  • Switch teams or projects. New situations open employees up to new locations and new groups of people. 
  • Join a networking community. Outside the office, people with similar careers seek professional camaraderie at any number of places. Just creating one good friend can make the effort worthwhile.  

Cultural Transformation

Is your culture working for or against you?

How managers can help employees feel more connected 

In an earlier time, loneliness at work might have sounded like a “personal problem.” But when the culture of an organization creates an environment where loneliness thrives, work outcomes are negatively affected. Here’s how managers can work towards solving the problem of loneliness at work. 

Know the signs of loneliness

As a manager or leader, it’s important to notice the signs of loneliness in employees. They might: 

  • Seem tired or burned out 
  • Have decreased productivity 
  • Experience frequent bad/sad moods 
  • Stop speaking up or being proactive 
  • Avoid colleagues and group activities 

Create psychological safety 

Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak up, take risks, and act authentically without negative consequences. While psychological safety is often discussed in manager-leader relationships, it’s also a factor in peer-to-peer interactions. To fully contribute, people need to feel they are an accepted part of the team. Leaders need to strive for an inclusive culture where team members feel safe being themselves. 

Provide opportunities for interaction 

There are plenty of ways leaders can help employees with conversation-starters leading to connections, positive interactions and feelings of belonging: 

  • Listen to employees. Taking time to know each employee—their goals, fears, and challenges—makes it easier to treat them compassionately. Follow up regularly. 
  • Organize small group activities. An off-site meeting, an evening activity, or solving a shared challenge can create deeper relationships between employees and spur conversation. 
  • Encourage mentorship programs.  Mentor-protégé relationships create interactions without the social awkwardness of trying to be instant friends. In addition to traditional mentorship arrangements, employees can mentor one another in areas of expertise, like technology applications. 
  • Formalize sharing—and model it, too. It can be less awkward for shy employees to share information about their lives when leaders and managers make it a normal work activity. Leaders should kick off the process by sharing something simple—a favorite song or movie, for example—then have employees follow.  
  • Reward people who proactively create connections. Microsoft research discovered companies that encourage and reward their employees for internal relationship-building activities also have employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and happiness.

Strengthen your workforce today

Korn Ferry has helped clients around the world build a strong, satisfied workforce. Read more about our strategies around talent management, assessment, and social inclusion.