Workplace loneliness is incredibly common, yet remains quite a taboo subject. The fact that it remains something we find hard to discuss openly means millions of employees are experiencing the same negative impacts of loneliness, but feeling unable to speak up about it.
In addition to being stigmatised, loneliness is often misunderstood. In this post, I want to explore five of the very common myths about workplace loneliness that I encounter. Our ‘Connect and Thrive‘ campaign was designed to build awareness of what loneliness is, and bust the commons myths surrounding it.
Loneliness is about being along
We experience loneliness when we reflect on whether our needs for connection with others are being met. This means we can feel lonely, even when we’re surrounded by others, when we don’t feel there’s a depth or meaning to our connection. We could experience loneliness every day at work, surrounded by colleagues, when we don’t think we can connect deeply enough with them.
We can also look at the converse – solitude. Being alone doesn’t automatically lead to loneliness. Especially when so many of us greatly appreciate our ‘alone time’ when we can get it! Solitude, when it’s needed, can be deeply rewarding and enjoyable. Of course, when we don’t want to be alone, that’s a different story – but we shouldn’t assume someone’s solitude means they’re automatically lonely.
Loneliness stems from remote work
Another common myth is the managerial assumption that employees experience loneliness as a result of working remotely. Closely related to the “alone equals lonely” myth, this implies that loneliness is the natural result of not being surrounded by colleagues.
Yet, putting the last few years of COVID-related enforced home-working to one side, people have worked remotely successfully for decades. Many remote workers find connection using technology, but also with those closest to them physically – family, friends and neighbours. Remote workers can build relationships and have their needs for connection met on their terms – not simply by coming into the office.
Loneliness is a personal problem
I mentioned the stigma associated with loneliness above. It can be a very difficult topic to discuss, albeit a necessary one. Managers and supervisors can easily frame loneliness as a ‘personal problem’ and something that doesn’t really impact the workplace. This certainly helps them avoid the conversation, but not the problem. Believing it simply reinforces one of the persistent myths about loneliness.
Research has shown that ongoing loneliness negatively impacts our wellbeing (even hampering our immune system). It also detracts from our performance at work and can negatively impact our relationships with those around us. It therefore needs to be a wellbeing priority in the workplace.
“…loneliness is linked to higher incidences of depression, increased anxiety, reduced self-control, reduced self-esteem, and job burnout… Especially relevant for worklife, loneliness also affects our ability to think, particularly on complex tasks such as abstract thinking, planning, and decision making. Lonely individuals also tend to demonstrate poorer work performance, reduced job-related well-being, and lower creativity in the workplace”. Connect and Thrive guide.
Loneliness is forever
People experiencing loneliness at work can easily label themselves as a ‘lonely person’. And so they begin to see it as a permanent feature of their working life. Yet loneliness doesn’t have to be forever and we can take proactive steps to overcome it. For many, loneliness is a transitory experience rather than a permanent state. And one that is as much about the context they’re in, as it is their capacity to make connections with others.
Thinking about it, there’s a big difference between framing the experience as “I am a lonely person” and “Right now, I’m feeling lonely”.
The answer to loneliness is more social events
When it comes to myths about loneliness, this is one I encounter in nearly every organisation I work with. While it might come from a good place, the urge to force employees into social situations to minimise the chance of loneliness is misplaced. As noted above, loneliness is partly about depth of connection, so a busy, bustling social hour with colleagues may not be the best environment to achieve this.
Secondly, why expect employees to give up personal time to attend work events outside of working hours? Even if it is just a trip to the pub. Thirdly, not everyone can or wants to spend their time outside of work where the main focus seems to be food or alcohol.
How to find out more
If anything in this post has resonated with you – either as a person experiencing loneliness or a manager wondering about the prevalence of loneliness in the workplace – check out our range of free resources, which you can find here: Connect and Thrive.
You can also watch our recent webinar all about workplace loneliness here.