From communication tech tools to open-floor office plans, employers are finding ways to encourage collaboration. Yet loneliness in the United States is on the rise and that is proving detrimental to worker well-being and bad for business.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans experience loneliness, according to a 2016 Harris poll. For many it’s not an occasional occurrence but a persistent problem, with one-third saying that they feel lonely at least once a week, the survey found.
Those at the top are especially at risk for feeling socially disconnected, with half of CEOs reporting feelings of loneliness in their roles, according to a 2012 survey by RHR International, a leadership development firm. More than half of that group believe their performance suffers as a result.
Employees without close or supportive relationships at work are more likely to feel disconnected from their jobs and that can affect their performance, according to Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health. The center is a program of the American Psychiatric Association.
“That’s the cost of loneliness and social disconnection,” Gruttadaro said. “There is a direct correlation between loneliness and productivity and absenteeism.”
The quality of an employee’s interpersonal relationships has a significant impact on how they perceive and connect with their workplace, according to research conducted by California State University and the Wharton School of Business. The 2012 report found that loneliness at work “triggers emotional withdrawal,” which affects not only the individual but co-workers as well, leading researchers to conclude that loneliness is an organizational problem not a personal one.
One way employers can address the problem is by measuring and tracking perceptions of inclusion and belonging, said Laura Hamill, chief people officer and managing director of the Limeade Institute, the research arm of HR technology and wellness company Limeade.
The Bellevue, Washington-based company recently launched an online platform called Inclusion Plus, which surveys employees and uses the data to develop strategies to building a more inclusive workplace, according to Hamill.
“You have to feel like your voice matters in order to feel engaged,” she said. “Employers tend to think about how connected we are from a tech perspective, but that doesn’t mean that employees feel connected or included. We tend to think of inclusion in terms of diversity but once that person is hired, what happens in their day-to-day experience? Do they feel included or that their voice is being heard?”
The platform sends supervisors a list of recommended activities based on employee survey results, such as prompting managers to ask all their employees for project status updates so that everyone feels valued, Hamill said.
At Nielsen, the company tackles loneliness by promoting human connection through its wellness program, which is called The Whole You.
“We’re partners, spouses, friends, neighbors, members of our community and it’s my mission to support all of them,” said Jackie Good, wellness manager for Nielsen Audio, a consumer research company based in Columbia, Maryland. “We want to embrace the idea that we see the person as an entire person and not just an employee. We were thoughtful in how we branded our wellness program to reflect that.”
Each of the company’s more than 100 locations host regular social gatherings for employees from painting parties and picnics to community volunteer projects, such as dog walking at the local shelter or exercising with seniors at a retirement center, Good said.
“It’s important to foster social connection because it’s part of being human and it’s as important to our survival as food and water,” she said.
Nearly two decades ago, Gallup Press published a list of 12 elements of great managing. The most controversial finding revealed that having a best friend at work could improve job performance. A Gallup researcher noted at the time that leaders who balked at the idea of workplace friendships viewed close social ties between employees as “detrimental to productivity.”
But those views are changing, according to Gruttadaro.
“My sense is that employers are starting to pay attention to loneliness along with workplace mental health,” she said.
She recommends surveying employees to determine how socially connected they feel and examining how office design and alternative work arrangements, like telecommuting, can affect relationships.
“Loneliness can contribute to depression, which is a costly problem,” she said. “It’s important to teach managers how to start a conversation with an employee who seems lonely.”