Why loneliness at work is something we should be talking about
Do you ever feel really lonely at work?
When I was working in New York in the early noughties, a book came out that stuck in my head. It was called Bowling Alone by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. The book’s poignant title came from an observation about declining community connections: In the 1950s people used to meet weekly to play together in bowling leagues; by the late 1990s people preferred bowling alone.
Putnam’s findings rang so true to me because I was living in a city where you can be surrounded by hordes of people and still feel alone. Loneliness is not something that’s determined by the number of people around you. It’s an experience that millions of people are struggling with today.
One of the most complex challenges facing the future of work is to reimagine the quality and fabric of our communities.
If we’re having fewer in-person interactions, how can we feel less lonely?
Atrophy of community connection
My nana used to belong to different local clubs and communities — bridge, the Rotary, synagogue, Meals on Wheels and the local parents’ association. She knew how to be a part of communities, and a lot of meaning in her life was derived from a sense of “us.”
On re-reading Putnam’s book, I asked myself where I get that deep community feeling outside of work. Sadly, no specific groups came to mind. I could blame it on moving countless times, but I think it comes from something more systemic — many millennials, including myself, have never built a strong community muscle.
The sense of “us” void
Many workers grew up in a world where their daily interactions, friendships, and even sources of comfort came from going into the office. Companies invested huge amounts of resources in making work more “social,” from free lunches to happy hours, to corporate retreats. The positive intent was to help people enjoy going to work. But we often didn’t invest enough energy in sustaining healthy relationships beyond the office. And our smartphones became band-aids for social connection.
Working from home
Fast forward 20 years and I find myself — like millions of others — working from home full-time. I can go days, even a week, without seeing anyone face to face except my family and dog (great cuddler, bad conversationalist). Most days, I feel positive and productive, but every now and then I get a deep pang of loneliness. I often think about people who don’t have a family or partner providing the social support I have.
Here lies the enormous tension around the future of work—we want autonomy and control, but we still crave human connection and belonging.
Ripping out the physical infrastructure of the office has created a social void.
An epidemic of loneliness
According to recent surveys, more than a third of Americans over 45 years old consider themselves to be lonely. More people are struggling with loneliness than have diabetes in the US. Even pre-pandemic, 1 in 5 millennials said they didn’t have a single friend.
Yet we don’t tend to think of loneliness as a serious health problem.
When Dr. Vivek Murthy served as the US Surgeon General during part of the Obama and Trump administrations, he became increasingly concerned by how many people were experiencing loneliness. In his insightful book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World he explains how loneliness can hurt our physical and mental health and even decrease our life span.
· Research shows that loneliness has the same effect as 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health outcomes and health care costs.
Five reasons why we’re becoming lonelier:
1. Changing nature of work including virtual working and job hopping.
2. An over-reliance on the ‘office’ as a source of community.
3. The pandemic forcing many social interactions online.
4. Changing norms of the purpose and prominence of work in our lives.
5. Atrophy of local community clubs and structures — for all ages and needs.
And it’s the last one I don’t think is getting enough attention.
The loneliness gap
Isolation and loneliness are often conflated but people can be isolated (alone) yet not feel lonely. For example, I relish being on a long walk with my dog in the Oxfordshire countryside. I can see nobody for hours and feel far from lonely. Meanwhile, doctors are among the loneliest workers, and they’re typically surrounded by people.
Social psychologists define loneliness as a subjective gap between the human connections we’d like to have and those we experience in our life.
So, if we feel lonely, what can we do about it?
Dr. Murthy explains that to avoid loneliness we need three types of connection in the right amounts:
1. Intimate: partner or spouse
2. Relational: circle of family or friends
3. Collective: community
What can workplaces do for lonely workers?
Reimagining the future of work means rethinking the design of connections. Yes, workplaces need to strengthen connections but also need to help provide more opportunities for people to serve in their own communities. (If you’re looking for specific recommendations on how to reduce loneliness, it’s worth reading Noreena’s Hertz book The Lonely Culture.)
On the flipside…
For workers, we need to accept that we should no longer rely on companies for that sense of “us.” To figure out if you’re feeling the loneliness gap, it can be helpful to ask:
· What type of connection do I want with my work?
· What type of connection do I want with my colleagues? (Not the same as 1)
· What type of connections do I have in relationships outside of work?
· What kind of community do I crave?
We can no longer rely on corporations to provide the fabric and infrastructure of meaningful social connections. That’s not a bad thing — if we can rebuild our community muscles.