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True connection is possible wherever you are

12 ideas for countering loneliness in the workplace

Published on

November 30, 2023


Everywhere I turn these days, I hear about the “epidemic of loneliness” or “inflation isolation”—the growing numbers of people choosing to stay home to save money.

I agree, loneliness is a serious issue. It’s also complex, affecting different people in different ways at different stages of life, so there isn’t a simple solution.  

However, as a rule, I think it’s possible to truly connect to others—whether in person or online—to counter emotional and physical isolation. A good first step? Talk about it more openly, so we reduce the stigma. When’s the last time you heard anyone admit being lonely? It’s akin to saying you’re unlikable, which is simply not true. It’s no one’s fault and incumbent on everyone to fix.  

One recent national campaign, the GenWell Project’s “Talk To A Stranger Week,” encouraged all Canadians to talk to at least one unknown person (even one!) over the course of a week. And in Toronto, a recent initiative urged all residents and businesses to get involved in their communities after the latest Vital Signs Report found the city’s residents lonelier and more disconnected than ever.

Beyond Canada, social isolation has become such a serious health issue that earlier this month, the World Health Organization declared it a "global public health concern" and convened an international commission to tackle it.

Why all the fuss?

Impact of loneliness

Far more than just a bad feeling, loneliness harms individuals and society—including our workplaces—where it results in lower performance, productivity and engagement.  

  • Lonely workers in the US say they think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers.  
  • According to a recent report by the US Surgeon General, stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs American employers an estimated $154 billion annually.  
  • And the same report found that loneliness is as bad for people's health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and leads to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.

Paradoxically, some of the loneliest people in our society can have the biggest social networks. Statistics Canada found people aged 15-24 to be the loneliest demographic in the country, with 23% of those surveyed reporting loneliness. It’s not surprising to me. After all, you might have lots of followers on Instagram, but will any of them make you soup when you’re sick?

With Gen Z poised to make up 27% of the global workforce by 2025, employers would be wise to factor loneliness into their talent strategies and work models going forward.

Who is lonely in the workplace?

Everyone is different, with variable needs for social connection at different stages of life. There are also different kinds of loneliness and different causes, but in the workplace, among employees who report being lonely, studies have shown that the work model could be a factor.

A 2023 Glassdoor study found that 31% of remote employees feel lonely at work, compared to 23% of hybrid employees and 21% of in-person workers. Remote workers surveyed also said it was harder to connect with colleagues and build relationships with their manager or senior colleagues.

Now, you might think it’s a natural cause and effect. You work from home, you don’t see anybody, therefore, you’re lonely. But as a champion of flexibility, I disagree with this direct correlation. I think if your job can be performed remotely, it’s great to have the choice to do so, at least part of the time. The key to making it work is to be intentional about connecting with others on a personal level, whether online or in person—ideally a mix of the two.  

In-person connection is a basic human need, as essential to our survival as food, water and shelter. So, if you work far from your colleagues, be intentional about spending time with others in person, whether it’s taking a class, heading to the gym, meeting up with friends or even, as GenWell urged, talking to strangers. And—importantly—ALSO be intentional about connecting virtually with your colleagues on a personal level. Talk to them about books, music, the weekend, recipes—anything to help relationships flourish. Online or in person, the key is to be connected!

Who’s in favour of remote/hybrid work?  

Once again, everyone is different, so preferences for work model vary greatly depending on age and stage of career, home location, family dynamics, and more.

For many, the benefits of remote work outweigh the drawbacks. For example, it often enables more flexible hours and schedules, and less time commuting means cost savings and more time to spend on things like cooking, caregiving, exercising, etc. So, it’s no wonder Gallup’s latest engagement study found that:

  • 60% of employees with remote-capable jobs want a hybrid work arrangement
  • about one-third prefer fully remote work
  • less than 10% prefer to work fully onsite

Interestingly, we might assume that younger workers want to work from home because many of them entered the workforce with this kind of flexibility, but it turns out, what they really want is choice. Studies have found that only 24% of those in their 20s want to work from home full time (compared with 41% of those in their 50s and early 60s), preferring instead a hybrid model. This makes sense to me. Younger workers want to connect with colleagues now and then, learn from others, grow their networks, and be seen and heard.

How can employers boost social connection in the workplace?

As the leader of a remote-by-choice organization (which means we can work in office, at home, or anywhere in Canada) with team members dispersed across the country, many of whom choose to work entirely remotely, I’m always interested to hear how those who work from home are faring. Are they surviving or thriving? Are they feeling lonely? Do they see that we care about them? Do they feel connected to their team and our organization? Are they using their extra time (by not commuting) to create meaningful connections, whether online or in person?  

I think there are ways to boost connection regardless of where you work. Here are some ideas.

  1. Counter the stigma: Ask colleagues how they’re doing and be open about sharing that you are lonely. Be curious about whether team members are connecting with friends, family and community members in their spare time, listen for cues that someone is lonely and offer a caring, positive ear, with concrete suggestions for connecting with colleagues.
  1. Train leaders to be “Illuminators”: As David Brooks writes in the New York Times, we’re living through an “epidemic of invisibility,” with many people feeling unseen, unheard and disrespected. To counter these feelings, he suggests becoming an “Illuminator”—someone with a persistent curiosity about other people who asks the right questions and makes others feel “bigger, respected, lit up.” Illuminators listen so actively, they “burn calories,” he says. To do so, he recommends you make eye contact and acknowledge when someone is talking, be vulnerable, and learn to see things from another’s point of view. Illuminators are also generous with praise, shining positive attention on their team members, making them see they’re valuable contributors.  
  1. Ask big questions: I appreciated some of the “30,000-foot” questions Brooks suggests asking others to make them feel seen, heard and honoured, including:  
  • If the next five years is a chapter in your life, what is the chapter about?  
  • Can you be yourself where you are and still fit in?  
  • What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  
  • What talent are you currently not using?
  1. Check your body language: When connecting over video, make sure your body language is friendly and shows you’re engaged. Record yourself when on a call and then play it back later to see how you come across. While talking to colleagues online, I sometimes catch myself multi-tasking—looking at my phone, checking email etc.—and am going to make a conscious effort to focus.
  1. Make time for fun—either in-person or over video: Let’s face it, we could all use some levity, especially with everything there is to worry about these days (recession, inflation, war, climate change, layoffs…). It’s especially important for those who work remotely to schedule time for fun chit-chat about non-work things, so they can build relationships. It can’t be all business all the time.
  1. Try an old-school phone call 20% of the time. Research has shown we can get distracted by visuals (not to mention fatigued by being on camera), so to really focus on what someone is saying, try calling them instead and walk away from your computer while you talk. Bonus: Try a walking phone call, so you get outside while connecting with colleagues.  
  1. Be intentional about connecting in person: We’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating because I still hear stories about hybrid workers who head to the office only to find they’re the only ones there. Whether your team is hybrid or remote, whenever you bring people together onsite, try to make it count. Is there a team lunch, a social event, a collaborative project or team brainstorm session? Maybe it’s the day when an in-person one-on-one takes place with the leader, so they can build a rapport. Ideally, you’re not asking people to come in only to sit separately and work on video.
  1. Offer as much choice as possible: Everyone has different likes and dislikes. Offer as many different opportunities as possible to connect, including community-based events for employees to meet in smaller groups closer to home (i.e., a local coffee shop or dog park). And since quieter employees might not appreciate getting together at a loud in-person event, try to offer the chance to meet in smaller, quieter groups when possible.  
  1. Collaborate on projects and areas of common interest: Make people feel seen and heard at all levels of the organization by bringing together leaders and employees of different seniority levels on different teams to work on cross-functional projects or provide input on a core organizational initiative. And give team members the chance to get to know one another by participating in programs outside their core work (for example, a DEI committee, DEI book club, parents group, etc.).  
  1. Try to bring everyone together in person for a couple of days at least once or twice a year: Regardless of where your employees are located, try to convene everyone in one place. This is the best way to build connections, especially for employees on different teams who never work together directly. We’re also investigating ways to convene our team members who work out of province (for example, by renting a co-working space near their homes once a month).
  1. Get outside: It’s important for all employees—onsite and remote—to try to head outside for 15 minutes during the day. Doing so will remind them there’s an entire world out there and lots of opportunity to connect with other people. They can say hi to their barista, greet the letter carrier, ask a shopkeeper how they’re doing, etc. As GenWell found, talking to strangers can increase optimism, trust, happiness, compassion and a sense of belonging, and reduce feelings of loneliness.
  1. Give back: The Toronto Foundation found that people who participate the most in community activities had better mental health, broader social networks, and a stronger sense of belonging. As an employer, consider offering paid time off for volunteering, convening team members to help out with a community project, or matching funds for your team members’ charitable contributions.

It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and forget to connect to others around you, especially when meetings and schedules mostly occur online.  

To boost social connection in our remote-by-choice organization, I’m going to make a concerted effort to share whenever I feel lonely and ask my team members how connected they are socially. After all, one of the best ways of addressing loneliness is by reducing the stigma of talking about it.  

I’m also going to consciously try to be an Illuminator. I’ll do my best to take the time to listen actively and enthusiastically, ask questions, offer praise, embrace differences and, most of all, look into the faces of those around me with love and acceptance.

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