Skip to content

The modern workplace is lonelier than ever… here’s what we can do about it.

by Niamh Moynihan on

There’s a reason why parents feel completely heartbroken when their child comes home from school and declares, “I have no friends.” Friendship, connection, fellowship—all these things go to the very core of our being as humans. Friends are intrinsic to a balanced, fulfilling life.

And they are a key component of a happy workplace and a better employee experience

I've had quite a few conversations about loneliness in the last few weeks, a concern shared by many business and HR leaders—and understandably so. Recent research by the Red Cross revealed that “nearly half of workers feel lonely some of the time.” 

Feelings of disconnection, discontent, and distance have been rising steadily over the years, impacting the workplace even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated these feelings, serving as a catalyst for even higher rates. Employees and leaders consistently say they feel less connected and supported and are unable to have meaningful conversations with their colleagues. 

The social aspect of work has morphed into an obligatory five minutes at the start of the day, and then it's straight down to work. In the modern office, everyone is either on their phones or has their headphones in. We’ve chosen tech over contact; why go for lunch with a colleague when you can have food delivered right to your desk?

Understanding the impact of loneliness

Workplace loneliness can have far-reaching consequences, both for the individual and the organisation, affecting productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. It can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and physical health issues. When employees feel isolated, it can hinder their ability to collaborate, innovate, and perform at their best.

Moreover, loneliness can affect employees at all levels, from individual contributors to managers and leaders. Even those who appear to be well-connected can experience feelings of isolation. In fact, the people you think are doing okay might be the ones who need the most help! The people who you think seem quite isolated might actually be quite happy in solitude, working away on their own

Personally, from time to time, I feel that pang of loneliness that comes with being self-employed. I have to make the effort to establish connections in my local community, co-working space, and networking groups. 

But I’ve also been in situations where I’ve been part of the team in a senior position, and that’s also been quite lonely. Because, yes, you can share banter, conversations, and laughs. But you can't share your problems. There’s a feeling that you need to hold back, you need to protect the team from the big picture problems, or you're not allowed to be completely transparent with team members due to confidentiality or sensitivity issues. So you can connect with them on a certain level, but you can't fully connect with them. Unless you have a peer who is a close friend at the same level, it can be difficult.

Fostering connections and community

So what can we do? In this article, we'll explore strategies and ideas for addressing loneliness in the workplace and fostering a more connected and supportive work environment. 

The first thing to note is that creating the right environment is absolutely essential. Basically, making “the right vibe” is key. Aim for a positive, friendly atmosphere and a real sense of belonging. You want that good feeling when folks hop on a call or walk into the office. And you know what? New hire orientations? The perfect chance to start off on the right note. Buddy up your new people with seasoned team members who can show them the ropes and make them feel at home from day one.

Encourage intentional conversations

It’s been proven that having conversations around loneliness actually helps to decrease overall loneliness. So, just by broaching the subject, you are already improving the problem. 

Open discussions can be facilitated through dedicated workshops, team meetings, or one-on-one conversations. By acknowledging the issue and creating a safe space for people to share their experiences, you can start the process of addressing the problem. Consider enlisting a facilitator or coach who can guide these discussions effectively. (Check out my new workshop offering here!)

Remember, deep relationships will never be formed without understanding what to discuss and how to discuss it. 

Establish triads or trios

The more, the merrier! Encourage employees to form small groups or "triads" within the team. These trios can provide a support network where individuals can share their thoughts, celebrate successes, and problem-solve together. This approach helps ensure that even if one member is unavailable, takes leave, or decides to move organisation, the other can still provide support and connection.

Treat meetings as opportunities to make new connections

When meeting with colleagues from other teams or departments, encourage employees to approach these interactions as a chance to build new relationships rather than just completing a task. Allocate more time for these meetings to allow for meaningful conversations and learning about each other's interests and experiences.

This goes for everyone, from entry-level staff to the C-Suite. Having allies across a large business has many benefits! Knowing people in other teams and departments helps you better understand the organisation and the big picture—and can also help you get things done. 

Encourage personal sharing

Incorporate activities that allow team members to share a bit of their personal lives. One idea I love is asking everyone to bring in a photo and discuss its significance. This really helps people take a step back and see their peers as more than work colleagues. In other words, it encourages more authentic connections within the team.

ERG Groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) offer employees a sense of community with others who share their identities, interests, or concerns. They boost satisfaction and retention while providing leadership opportunities for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds—a total win-win. ERGs have evolved from simply organising social events to becoming strategic business initiatives, creating spaces where members can experience community, connection, and belonging.

Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

Loneliness is subjective. One person might be thrilled to be invited to mix with hundreds at a company party, while the next might feel lonelier there than at home alone. Give people options. Try a mix of the above ideas and see what works and for whom. Pay special attention to your fully remote colleagues and to those from minority groups.

Ultimately, addressing loneliness in the workplace requires a holistic, organisation-wide approach. Leaders and managers need to buy in. Prioritise a culture of belonging, where employees feel valued, supported, and really look out for each other. Make it part of your DEIB programme. And, make sure your DEIB efforts are driven by tangible actions, and don’t just remain words on a webpage.

We know that today's employees expect purpose and connection, but the modern workplace often falls short of providing these. A valuable opportunity to build an enriching workplace environment exists—it just requires the correct groundwork to be laid. Organisations can reap the benefits of a more engaged, collaborative, and fulfilled workforce by taking simple, proactive steps.

Finally, the last thing I would urge you to do is have a conversation with the people you work with and ask, “Do you ever feel a bit lonely at work?” If they do, listen to them and see if there is any way that you could support them. This could be just the opening they need to take steps toward improving their situation.