Is loneliness on the rise in your workplace? Studies have suggested that an epidemic of loneliness at work is underway, with Britain going so far as to appoint a minister for loneliness to address this growing challenge. But is loneliness really a problem?

“Whether you feel lonely in your private life, in your family life, or in the workplace, it can have real repercussions for your health and even mortality,” explained Professor Sigal Barsade from the Wharton School of Business when I interviewed her recently. “Loneliness at work doesn’t just impact the individuals concerned. Studies have found that it can also have a real impact on your organization’s bottom line because when you’re lonely at work, you’re less happy and your performance suffers.”

For example, one study with 477 workers across 99 workgroups found that the lonelier you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be committed to your organization, the worse your supervisor will view your performance, and the more likely it is that others will find you less approachable and be reluctant to offer you help. This means that loneliness is not just a personal problem, it’s everybody’s problem in a workplace.

From an evolutionary perspective, loneliness is a signal that you need to seek out others in order to meet your basic needs for social connection. When these needs are not met however, researchers have found that because you feel unsafe, you become hypervigilant of social threats in your environment, expect more negative social interactions, and remember more negative social information. As a result, you tend to feel more hostile, stressed, and anxious and you distance yourself from others creating a self-reinforcing loop of loneliness.

So, what can you do to reduce the cost of loneliness in your workplace?

Sigal suggested:

  • Challenging your perspective – While many may think that people who are lonely need better social skills, research indicates that when they’re in a comfortable context their social skills are just as good as anybody else’s. It’s the loneliness itself that can create the social problem. So, if you’re feeling lonely, try to gather evidence that will help you look at the situation in another way. For example, when you’re feeling lonely and someone does something nice for you, you’re less likely to appreciate it, as you think that this is something they do for everyone. But, by showing gratitude, you can be more effective at connecting with others and reducing your own loneliness. 
  • Encouraging connection gently – While you’re likely to know who’s feeling lonely in your team, it’s not advisable to point this out to them, or try and group these people together. Instead, open a conversation by letting them know that you sense that they may not be feeling comfortable or feeling a part of things. Look for opportunities to help them reframe their thinking by reflecting on where their efforts or input have been valued by others. Try to involve them in a work project where they’re in the thick of things as this can lead to more natural interactions that may help them lower their guard, and see the perspectives of the people who they’re feeling left out from.
  • Building a caring culture – In teams where there is a strong emotional culture of affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness among employees, lonely people feel psychologically safer, and are less likely to spiral into a self-reinforcing loop of loneliness. Caring cultures can be built through micro-moments of genuine connection with each other. For example, when you ask somebody how are they and you really listen to their answer. Or when you see that somebody is really busy and you take the time to grab a cup of coffee and bring it to their desk. Or when you remember to follow up on something that someone mentioned a week ago that was important to them.

Can you help someone feel less lonely at work today?