Britain is experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Nine million people in the UK are affected by it and the problem is such that by 2023, doctors in England will be able to refer patients experiencing isolation to community activities and voluntary services.
Loneliness isn’t just bad for our minds - it’s bad for our physical health too. Research has shown that long-term loneliness increases our risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. And social isolation doesn’t exclusively affect older people living alone either - a growing number of employees are struggling with chronic loneliness, even when surrounded by an office of people.
According to a survey of 2,000 professionals by CV Library, more than half - 53% - said they suffer from loneliness in the workplace. Two-thirds of those aged 35 to 44 feel lonely at work, making them the most isolated age group. A further 47.4% of 45- to 54-year-olds said they felt lonely at work too.
Four in ten attributed the problem to having nothing in common with their colleagues - and a quarter said it was because they didn’t have good work friends.
Other reasons included having to work alone in an office, eating alone at lunch and not being invited to work socials.
In many workplaces, technology has replaced real human interaction and we rely on emails, Slack or WhatsApp instead of speaking to a colleague a couple of desks away. And with heavy workloads leaving little time for socialising and the popularity of remote working, the problem is growing.
‘Closing the lonely gap’
Loneliness is often brushed aside as a problem in the workplace, but research shows it is something employers should be alert to. Not only does it impact physical and mental health among staff, it affects people’s ability to work too. In 2011, researchers at California State University and Wharton School of Business surveyed a sample of 672 workers and concluded that loneliness has a “significant influence on employee work performance.”
What’s worse, admitting to being lonely made the situation worse because of stigma. Not feeling able to speak to coworkers about feeling isolated led to even further isolation and a detachment from their work.
In short, we are social animals who thrive on contact with others, even those who are introverted or shy - and even though we dread the thought of “team-building” days. So what can we do to tackle the problem of loneliness at work?
“Humans need to connect - there must be an exchange of emotion through talking, a bonding, that's how we build friendships, even if it is just at a surface level in the beginning. It's how most of us build relationships,” says Life Coach Directory member Denise Bosque.
“We can close the 'lonely gap' by being a bit more pro-active - both from the lonely person's point of view and the more confident person. So, for example, if you know you avoid people, start by saying hello, to everyone you come into contact with, comment on something trivial, shoes they're wearing, a photo on their desk.”
If you are more confident, asking someone quieter out for post-work drink or a coffee can go a long way too, particularly if they aren’t the type for big social gatherings. “If someone doesn't respond as you'd expect, try not to judge, they may be having a bad day,” Bosque adds.
In addition, however, it’s important for employers to create a positive working environment. Encouraging staff to interact with one another, rather than working in silence, is more likely to boost morale, which in turn can improve productivity.
Having a small budget for socialising can help too, as employees may be more likely to attend a social event if they aren’t paying for it. It’s a small price to pay to make workers feel appreciated, too.
Making sure people have a solid support system and a good work-life balance is also key. If employees are snowed under with work, stressed and exhausted, the thought of socialising or interacting with colleagues can seem like an extra burden. Some people are happy to keep their work and social lives separate, so making sure they go home on time - and aren’t answering work emails all night - is important.
Ultimately, Bosque adds, we all want to be recognised, and we all want a sense of belonging - even in the workplace. “People work better when they feel part of something,” she says.