You know that old adage, “It’s Lonely At The Top”?
We say it like it’s a badge of honor, a humble brag that you’ve made it through the gauntlet of early career and middle management, proven yourself to be smart and strong enough for the Big Job. And then, there you are, making Big Decisions alone. After all, asking for help has often been perceived as sign you weren’t really worthy of leadership.
We’ve so deeply entangled loneliness with ambition that it has become synonymous with success. It’s as if loneliness is a penalty we must pay for being ambitious—and new research shows that women are paying with their mental health. Nearly 70% of women say they feel unsupported, 51% feel isolated and 53% feel lonely because of their job—and the feelings get more intense as women climb the ranks at work, according to The Cost of Loneliness research report by TheLi.st (a community of high-impact women and non-binary business leaders where I’m the CEO and owner), in partnership with Berlin Cameron agency and Benenson Strategy Group.
Of note: Men are lonely at work, too, but they reported feeling less lonely and more supported as they advanced in their careers. As one woman in our research said: “The higher you grow, the lonelier you become.”
For women of color, loneliness is compounded by a lack of respect—27% of women of color said they do not feel respected by the people who report to them, compared to 19% of white women. “I’ve had folks who have certain expectations of what they expect black women to be,” explained one participant in our research. “Like, not to be their boss.”
Let’s be clear: Loneliness isn’t just a passing mood—it’s a health crisis on par with the opioid crisis, according to US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who announced that his office will launch a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in America. Loneliness, he says, poses real threats to both mental and physical health. Among them: higher risks of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular illness, dementia, and sleep disturbances, Murthy has said.
What really opened my eyes, though, is when I read Murthy explain that loneliness is a biological response to a need for togetherness, in the same way that hunger is a sign that we need to eat. We are literally starving for connection. “Addressing the crisis of loneliness and isolation is one of our generation’s greatest challenges,” writes Murthy. “By building more connected lives and more connected communities, we can strengthen the foundation of our individual and collective well-being.”
But there’s a sense of shame and failure around feeling lonely—as if it’s our fault we haven’t been able to build the right relationships, haven’t networked enough, maybe, in a moment of self-doubt, we think we aren’t likeable enough. We are so quick to see it as a personal failing rather than a signal that we need to feed the connections—inside and outside of work—that we need to feel supported and successful.
Even before the pandemic, our work lives and life lives were piling on top of each other—business calls at the gym, Slack messages at the grocery store, endless emails on the weekend. But the upheaval of the pandemic triggered a Great Re-evaluation, and something in us shifted. We began hoping for more from our relationship with work, namely that it be a meaningful part of an otherwise full life, rather than the thing demanding round-the-clock engagement and crowding out everything else. But overwhelmingly, work hasn’t answered that call. We derive so much of our sense of self from our jobs, but work is not set up to give us the connection and support we need.
“I think that women have been taught over the course of their careers to not show weakness or vulnerability,” says one survey respondent, a founder and CEO. “So, the higher you get, …you feel like you can’t show people that you don’t know what you’re doing. So there’s fewer and fewer people who you can share those moments with, which then feels really lonely.”
I’ve seen these dynamics at play in my own career. I was 34 and single when I became Editor-in-Chief of Seventeen, my first big role. I nearly didn’t throw my hat in the ring for the job because I was worried that I’d never have time for dating or relationships. That feeling is echoed in the research: 49% of women say that they have turned down a job or promotion, quit a job or stopped working altogether because of the fear of negative effects on their personal lives.
I managed to put my fears aside for the iconic role. But when I stepped into that job, during what should have been a time of celebration and camaraderie, I suddenly felt isolated from my colleagues and teammates. It feels vulnerable to say this on LinkedIn — the place where we go to high-five each other on new jobs and career wins — but it’s true. For my first six months as an editor-in-chief, I would end the week completely depleted and burnt out.
I didn’t know who to turn to for support. My friends had their own things going on. My family didn’t really know how to help me through this transition. And in many ways, my colleagues and I were all in competition with each other, so there was little support there.
The reigning ethos as I was coming up through the ranks was “Never let them see you sweat.” You didn’t want to show any signs of doubt for fear of being picked off by sharp-elbowed colleagues, so you didn’t ask for help. And even though a new generation of workers are ushering in an era of “bring your whole self to work,” we’re still wrestling with how much to share. 37% of women in our survey said they felt they couldn’t talk about what’s happening their lives at work. And they feel just as isolated at home: another 37% of women say they can’t talk to their partners about what’s happening at work.
This may seem like pretty grim news, but it’s also a call to action—for women, underrepresented folks and the companies that employ them.
The solution to loneliness is simple to say, harder to achieve: meaningful togetherness. Not just transactional networking or cocktail meet-ups, but spaces where women are free to celebrate their hard-fought wins and share the struggles only other women at their level understand. “It’s about opportunities where vulnerability is not just accepted but appreciated and encouraged,” said one founder & CEO in our research interviews. “The more that women are able to talk to each other about new things in life, or new challenges in life, that community diminishes the feeling of being alone in it.”
In our research, we heard again and again that people were more successful when they had mentorship at work and community, collaboration and connection in their lives.
While the vulnerability required to ask for help and be open to suggestions didn’t come naturally to me, I’ve learned how to cultivate and tap into the power of a community from the members of TheLi.st, a confidential space where women and non-binary leaders can share opportunities, intel and counsel. We also talk about the complex intersection between career ambition and life. I was a member for five years before I acquired it.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my fellow members of TheLi.st that I believe can help women — and the companies that employ them — thrive:
- Realize you are not alone: When you’re feeling lonely at work, it can seem like you’re the only one who feels this way or that it’s in some way your fault. But our research shows that isolation, disconnection and lack of support is a widespread systemic problem. Connecting with other women and discussing the challenges you’re experiencing can help ease any shame or self-blame associated with these feelings.
- Master the check in: The more stressed you are at work, the less likely you are to feel like you have the capacity to invest in relationships with friends and colleagues. But those relationships are crucial to making you feel seen and supported. There are people who are on your side — and it doesn’t take much to stay connected with them. Make a habit of sending a quick text to a woman in your life to let her know you’re thinking of her, to offer help, or to ask for support.
- Invest in community: Widespread loneliness is a systemic issue, and companies need to support solutions that help women rise. Our research found that women spend a lot of time and effort forming their own networking groups and looking for mentors. Women of color see even fewer potential mentors who look like them at their company’s helm, and many say that it’s promotions, raises and investments they want, along with mentorship. Companies need to get serious about building communities and mentor programs for women within their walls — and supporting communities outside their walls, too, so their women employees can more easily access the support networks that will help them reach their potential.
In the days since I left that job at Seventeen, I’ve worked hard to build a support system for myself—one that helped me see possibilities and unlock opportunities that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. My book, The Big Life, was supported by a small group of other authors who shared their tips and tricks to help it reach its audience. As a CEO, I’m supported by a board of tremendous advisors with whom I have nurtured trusting relationships over many years. The connections that sustain me were formed at small dinner parties, by showing up to support friends and colleagues at their events, and most importantly by offering the kind of honesty and trust that I’d want in return.
We need to shift the narrative that tells us that success is a solo, zero-sum game that’s isolating and lonely. And instead we need to see the rise to the top as a web of support, connection and opportunity.
If employers invest in building community where we can be our authentic selves, and we make space for meaningful togetherness, it changes what “The Top” feels like and breeds an environment where we can all succeed.