Young, Isolated, and Alone

A new study shows millennials and Gen Zers feel lonely at work. Steps leaders can take to make young workers feel connected.

It sounds like it could be the headline of a dating app profile: young and lonely looking to make a meaningful connection. Except it isn’t on a personal bio, it’s the emotional state of many young workers today.

In widely followed news, a new study from the health insurance company Cigna reported a vast majority of millennial and Gen Z workers—about 75% between the two groups, to be exact—feel lonely and isolated at work. And while there are a range of factors beyond leadership’s control—such as the rise in texting instead of talking—experts say company chiefs need to take notice or risk falling engagement.

“People need to feel acknowledged and appreciated as humans, not just as producers of work,” says Kirsta Anderson, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s global Cultural Transformation practice. She says the findings should be a wake-up call for leaders to create more inclusive environments.

The study—which surveyed more than 10,000 people—also found that young workers cited a need to hide their true selves and a disconnect between their values and those of their employers as reasons for feeling empty and alienated at work. To be sure, the lack of connection has business implications; research shows that lonely workers are less productive and less committed to their organizations than their peers.

Melissa Swift, senior client partner for digital solutions at Korn Ferry, says the typical workday structure and design of modern offices can contribute to a feeling of loneliness. She notes, for instance, that workers often spend full days in back-to-back meetings, which doesn’t leave time for ad hoc connections. “A fully scheduled day can actually be a very lonely day,” says Swift. Moreover, she says the open-concept office environment ironically discourages informal interactions between colleagues.

As virtual and remote work becomes the norm rather than the exception, loneliness will become a bigger issue for leaders to solve. Swift says leaders need to constantly solicit feedback from remote workers to refine the employee experience. Some questions leaders can ask are: What are the motivations for working virtually? And, if office related, how often do employees speak with co-workers and through what medium?

Of course, employees play a part in their own happiness, says Anderson. She advises younger workers to think about what they need to do to feel their true self at work and then talk about it with their manager. Be vocal about needing opportunities to connect, for instance, and make suggestions as to what might be helpful. For remote workers, plan a few days per month in the office if possible, and limit time on social media if that is a trigger.

Anderson also suggests remote workers should take a look at the behaviors of successful people in the office. “If the successful people aren’t seemingly being themselves, consider whether this is the right place for you. And if they are being themselves, take a risk and try opening up and see how it goes.”