• Michael Freed

Loneliness in the Workplace is a Big Problem with a Simple Solution

Loneliness and employee isolation are problems for every large organization worldwide, whether it is a business, charity, or governmental department and the more reliant on technology that organization is, the more the problem tends to present itself. This paper will discuss why social interaction is great for businesses and why loneliness can be a professional problem as well as a personal one. Good employers also care about the individual well-being of their employees so we’ll dive into the individual effects of social interaction and loneliness as well. Finally, we’ll discuss some of the causes and methods that employers often employ to solve these problems and why they are coming up short and how Maka Social can make a difference in your organization.

Why Professional Socializing is Important

A growing stream of research has shown that employee job performance is significantly tied to an employee’s ability to build and maintain a relational support system and interpersonal networks. This makes a lot of sense. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is as true now as it has ever been. Our personal connections can often be a lifeline when we need help or can just give us a healthy feeling of satisfaction when we are able to help others. The importance of socializing on the job however goes beyond networking. “Connection with others has been found to be an inherent part of employee motivation and satisfaction.” “Researchers for Gallup found that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured.” There is also strong evidence that employees give serious consideration to social interaction when choosing a job. “Analysis of 42,721 employee responses from a Glassdoor survey, found that non-cash benefits such as social experiences and the opportunity to take leaves had a greater impact on job satisfaction than money did.”

Employee Loneliness Can Cost You Money

While positive social interaction can be great for your organization, lonely employees may be costing you more than you might think. “In the workplace, many employees and half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles. People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.” “Several papers have documented a link between loneliness and lowered organizational commitment, lowered creativity,” “and lower productivity.” “Lonely employees have been found to have more problems in taking part in groups, being friendly, introducing themselves, and making friends with others,” and “it can strongly influence their intention to leave.”  Without intervention, this problem can become feedback loop and worsen. “Employees experiencing greater work loneliness will likely evaluate their previous social exchanges with coworkers as negative; therefore, lonelier employees will tend to withdraw from existing relationship opportunities. In addition, lonelier employees will expect the worst in the future, causing them to continue to withdraw—a tendency exacerbated by deficits in their social skills caused by the loneliness itself.” Loneliness on the job doesn’t just make a person under perform, it can also have a negative impact on the people around them. “As they become lonelier, their preoccupation with their own feelings can lead to deficits in empathy for others.”

Socializing and the Well-being of the Individual

It can not be overstated how much social interaction is important to human health. “Even fleeting social interactions with others can play a surprisingly large role in reducing stress and promoting happiness.”  “Although initiating a conversation with someone you don’t know is hard, casual social interactions with strangers significantly boost happiness.” “In a simple study, researchers intercepted people going into a coffee shop, asking half to make a social connection with the barista . They asked the other half to complete their transaction as efficiently as possible. The first group reported higher well-being and satisfaction with their visit.” “A similar study by Juliana Schroeder of UC Berkeley reinforced these findings that prosocial behavior not only combats loneliness but also makes people happier with their environment. She found that encouraging people waiting in line at an amusement park to be social with nearby strangers made them feel that their wait was shorter and led them to rate the experience higher. The simple intervention increased their enjoyment of the overall experience.”

In a study that sought to identify what factors are shared by the happiest people, “being highly social and having stronger romantic and other social relationships was the most consistent predictor of happiness” though other factors were clearly at play since not everyone who was highly social was also happy. It still shows that it is one of the most important components.  Their “findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people. In contrast, unhappy people have social relationships that are significantly worse than average. One might conjecture that good social relationships are, like food and thermoregulation, universally important to human mood.

Loneliness is Far more than a State of Mind

Most of us would think of loneliness as a negative feeling to be sure, but it’s just a feeling right? It’ll go away. Most of us would be wrong. Many of us wouldn’t even be aware of the physical problems that loneliness can cause. “There’s something almost primal about our need to be connected, so it’s no wonder our bodies respond badly to isolation. Loneliness is as elemental as hunger, thirst, and love.” “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”  “Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.” “Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body. Loneliness causes stress, and long-term or chronic stress leads to more frequent elevations of a key stress hormone, cortisol. It is also linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body. This in turn damages blood vessels and other tissues, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death.” Additional affects can be added from another source: “increased incidence of clinical depression and suicidal ideation, elevated blood pressure levels, increased levels of stress hormones, and compromised immune-system functioning. Loneliness has been also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, poor sleep, alcoholism, and cancer. 

As bad as loneliness can be for our body, it can be even worse for our mental health. Starting with the more obvious, “loneliness predicts depression.” “It is also reported that individuals feeling lonely have a low level of self-esteem and exhibit symptoms such as despair and drowsiness while also feeling unloved. It is reported that individuals who suffer feelings of loneliness are more pessimistic than others and ascribe generally more negative meanings to incidents around them.”

It seems intuitive that many of these mental health issues might have a backwards causality. They are the cause of a person feeling alone instead of loneliness being the cause. Here again, research shows this isn’t necessarily the case. It is actually a feedback loop or downward spiral of A causing B causing A and it can be hard to pull out of it. “Lonelier people are overly vigilant to social threats. This social hypervigilance leads them to fall prey to socially based attentional, confirmatory, and memory biases, all of which induce them to view their “social world as threatening and punitive”. As a result, lonelier people become less secure in social interactions and more anxious about being negatively evaluated by others. This socially anxious state leads lonelier people to be more likely to engage in inappropriate self-disclosure patterns and to show other deficits in social skills.” “The people who most need to build secure relationships have the most trouble doing so.”

Employers Can Make a Difference

Increasing evidence shows that socialization is critical to human health and given the amount of time we spend on the job, the opportunities we get in our off hours just aren’t enough. To make matters worse, reliance on technology and ever growing specialization means our opportunities to socialize with colleagues is diminishing.

Many organizations do recognize this as a problem and make some effort to help. Cafeteria spaces, recreational facilities, or large break rooms with seating are common place in many medium to large organizations. Many organizations deliberately host social events such as holiday parties, mixers, networking events, or potlucks. These efforts are a step in the right direction, but research shows they are fundamentally flawed because we just don’t like the idea of talking to strangers and tend to resist it.

Why isn’t this Working?

When given an opportunity to mix with our colleagues a few things tend to happen. Most of us will take it as an opportunity to hang out with the people we already know instead of actually meeting new people. Conversation is often about work because that’s the common ground we know about and it prevents forming personal bonds. Without a tether to people we know, many of us will either withdraw and pull out our phones or we will gravitate toward people who look like us which is a disaster for cultural diversity.

People tend to seek out familiar faces first because it gives us a more satisfying encounter.  The danger is that this leads to tighter, but smaller networks. When one of those few close colleagues transfers, leaves the organization, or even has a day off, it can have a big impact on a person’s well being. So why aren’t we taking all of these opportunities to meet new people? It turns out there is a high mental cost of entry. A majority of people, especially those who tend toward the introverted end of the spectrum, believe that talking to a stranger is going to be a negative experience, even though actually doing it is most often rated a pleasurable experience by those same people afterward.

 Specifically, it comes down to two things, fear of rejection, and a growing distaste for small talk. We have this mistaken idea that the people around us don’t want to be bothered even when they are clearly in the room for the same reason we are. I think we can all relate on the small talk issue. How many times have you been in the break room only to be accosted by an overly aggressive colleague asking “How’s it going? Workin’ hard or hardly workin?” as if you haven’t heard that joke 10,000 times before and you think to yourself, “I’m pouring this coffee over the head of the next person who says it.” These colleagues are just trying to be friendly, but they have nothing meaningful to say to you because they don’t know you. Every time, we try to start up a conversation with a stranger, we have to get through this phase of completely unimportant exchanges. “Where are you from?” “Nice shoes.” “How ‘ bout those (insert local sportsball team here)?” We see these as a waste of time. They rarely produce useful results and we are increasingly more sensitive to anything we see as a waste of our time.

A Better Way

If giving employees time and opportunities to socialize isn’t enough, what more can an organization do? Maka Social is developing an app that bridges that final gap. We can help people feel less alone in a crowd and feel more confident in approaching strangers and we do this by addressing the two big barriers. Our users check in to a location, like a cafeteria or courtyard. Just by checking in, they are informing other users in the same location that they are approachable and want an interaction. This reduces the fear of rejection. Once checked in, you can see of list of other users in the same location and have access to their profile. The user’s profile shows a list of up to ten of that person’s favorite conversation topics. This gives users the opportunity to find non work related common ground and skip over the time wasting small talk to something that isn’t a time waster. The Maka Social app also has a third hidden benefit. When people are encouraged to act more extroverted by an outside influence, they often feel more confident in doing so. By making Maka Social available to employees in designated social areas, an organization can expect to see far more mixing of staff and new bonds of respect and friendship forming across functional lines.

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