Does Loneliness Impact Work?

As the pandemic drags on, lots of people are struggling with isolation. But there are things managers can do to help.

By Stephanie Vozza

How managers can help employees handle loneliness and isolation

As we enter month seven of the pandemic, social distancing has taken its toll, and more people report feeling lonely. Loneliness is a health risk that impacts your well-being and work. A study from the mobile coaching platform BetterUp found that lonely workers were less satisfied with their jobs, received fewer promotions, switched jobs more frequently, and were more likely to quit their current job within the next six months.

While the pandemic enhanced the depth of the problem, loneliness has been a growing challenge for the workforce for a number of years, says Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp. “It has been described as an epidemic,” she says. “Forty percent of the people in our study reported feeling lonely.”

Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer for the performance management platform Workhuman, says many people are dealing with a Home Alone experience. “For a while, being home by yourself can feel like a treat,” he says. “Then the reality begins to set in. We’re beginning to see a longer-term impact on mental health, and that affects productivity and efficiency. A healthy organization can’t achieve without healthy people.”

BetterUp’s study found that certain types of employees are at greatest risk of being lonely, including those who are single and childless, with fewer people in their private life. Well-educated employees with graduate degrees also reported higher levels of loneliness, as did those who identified as anything other than heterosexual.

It’s important for managers to have a sense of each person’s home life, says Rosen Kellerman. “If they have team members who are living alone or don’t have family nearby, they are at higher risk,” she says. “Keeping closer tabs on them is important.”

The signs of loneliness are often subtle and include social withdrawal, lower levels of energy and optimism than normal, and a decrease in productivity or work quality. If you sense an employee or coworker could be suffering from loneliness, there are things you can do:

Create Opportunities for Meaning

The single most impactful step to take to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building meaning, says Rosen Kellerman.

“Managers can help by connecting employees to a shared sense of purpose around work,” she says. “Managers don’t always understand what is meaningful to their employees, but they need to take the time and gain an understanding by talking about it. We see an improvement in workplace outcomes when employees feel connected to the meaning of the work they’re doing.”

Leaders should also connect employees to the project outcomes. “Use collective wins and celebrate the entire team,” says Rosen Kellerman. “When you have a success, call out as many individuals by name. Recognition creates a sense of mattering, which is a close cousin to meaning.”

Finding times to check in and fostering colleague connection are also helpful. Read more.

Originally published on October 6, 2020