Why are we lonely at work?

25th Oct 2023

People get lonely. Not just remote or hybrid workers, but employees who spend most of their time in the busy workplace — so it’s not just a consequence of digital tech and physical separation.

A recent survey by an employee benefits provider has suggested around a quarter of UK employees experience loneliness while they’re at work. The average is slightly higher for full-time office workers compared with homeworkers, the hybrid and deskless.

The bigger spikes are among younger employees: 32% of 18-24 year olds feel lonely (compared with 9% for the over 55s), even though they are also the ones most likely to have the wider net of social ties at work.

So what’s happening beneath the surface of convivial corporate bustle? The particular problems among younger employees point to a sense of disappointment. Life in the workplace just hasn’t lived up to their ideal offered by the employer brand and its impressive mission and values, the expected team-working, tough but rewarding, shared achievements, the times when long-lasting friendships are made.

What they tend to find instead is an environment that’s been built for decades around individual efficiency and performance; individual empowerment and responsibility. When times are good, we all celebrate together — but day-to-day, you’re on your own; especially when things get difficult.

The broader finding from the survey sums up the problem: more than two-thirds of employees said they didn’t feel a sense of connection or belonging at work. Loneliness is one symptom of these feelings of disconnection.

While a focus on individual performance is always going to be a practical necessity, there is a sense of imbalance, an unease in modern workplaces. The answer isn’t necessarily more social events or more reward and recognition schemes.

The stress on individualism — combined with the dependence on digital communications, and a much greater self-consciousness when it comes to personal identity and perceptions — has been damaging. There have been more and more limitations on people’s ability to be authentic, all of themselves at work. Less openness, less trust, less real.

The quality of workplace conversations is the key to employee experience, their ability to contribute, and a sense of belonging. We need more ‘Conversational Integrity’ among both management and staff, making sure people are listening to each other, are self-aware, curious and conscious of their impact on others; the kinds of conversation skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views, different people. It’s not just about avoiding conflict. Challenging conversations are good for business, for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and sense of motivation.

Conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event: being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported in practical terms by making time and ensuring there’s a mix of online and face-to-face communications. That also means making sure there are consistent messages about the expectations of staff in terms of the value of having open conversations: everyone being part of a more realistic, more human ‘clear air’ culture.

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