What is loneliness?
We are all social beings living in a social world. Feeling disconnected from others is simply our body’s way of signalling a need to connect. Speaking to more people or being around people is often not a panacea for many who experience this distressing feeling, and for some, these feelings may stick around longer than one would hope.
Loneliness is a subjective feeling of social isolation – speaking to more people, getting to know more people, may do nothing to satisfy this social need. So how do you know if you feel lonely? Loneliness is often described as not feeling in tune with others or feeling misunderstood by people around you. You can feel lonely in a crowd, lonely in your environment, lonely in a marriage, or unheard by others around you.
Loneliness affects everyone regardless of gender, age, or socioeconomic status. Loneliness is now identified as the next major social, community, economic, and public health issue in Australia. Loneliness negatively affects our health and wellbeing and the interest of how we relate to each other in the workplace is growing. Indeed, research indicating negative impacts on both employees and the employers, specifically, it is associated with poorer job performance and satisfaction, lower organisational commitment, and reduced creativity. Employees who are lonelier (compared with their less lonely counterparts) make more errors, take more sick leave, and express a stronger intention to resign.
What about loneliness in the workplace?
Workplace loneliness affects all employees across different demographics, seniority, and industry. Around 37% of Australian workers feel lonely while nearly a quarter do not engage in any activities to connect them with their colleagues. The economic cost of loneliness in Australia has yet to be comprehensively quantified but we should expect this to be significant enough to warrant our immediate attention. The New Economics Foundation Report indicated that loneliness cost employers up to £2.53 billion per year in the UK through the cost of working days lost due to poor health associated with loneliness, cost of caring responsibilities due to poor health associated with loneliness, low job satisfaction and productivity and a high staff turnover.
Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced more barriers to forming and maintaining meaningful workplace relationships from the acceleration of remote work practices to increased casualisation of employment. We have to further about think about how we now relate to each other in the workplace which is compounded by the stressors of an economic recession.
Where to from here?
Loneliness in the workplace is readily acknowledged as an issue but much work is needed in order to comprehensively address this. If we can identify what factors drives and what factor protects people from feeling lonely at work, we can build a more socially cohesive work environment that is protective of our health and wellbeing.
More recently, Ending Loneliness Together has called for a national response, calling on all sectors to work together to address loneliness. Their whitepaper Ending Loneliness Together in Australia speaks about loneliness in the workplace – and makes recommendations on how the National Workplace Initiative can assist business to keep employees socially connected and well, and to safeguard employees from new workplace practices such as remote working.
Our social needs however are complex – and there is not a one size fits all solution. The implementation of any solutions or changes to workplace practices should be steered by the employees’ needs and preferences, as well as the organisations’ ability to deliver and implement. Addressing this issue requires more than having people interact with each other. Social relationships come with negative, positive, and ambivalence influences on the individual. Knowing more people may reduce social isolation but may not address loneliness, and in some cases, can cause more harm than good. Investments and efforts to address loneliness should always be steered by the latest evidence in order to ensure positive impact and cost-effectiveness.
Also published on LinkedIn.
We recently spoke with Dr Lim about the latest insights into workplace loneliness and its impact on wellbeing. View the recording here.
Dr Michelle Lim
Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee