What’s behind the rise in workplace loneliness?

Posted by
Alexandra Jones
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

More than half (60%) of UK employees have felt lonely at work, according to new research by Mind and totaljobs – with nearly two-thirds feeling their workplace doesn’t do enough to combat office loneliness. But why do we care when we’re there to work? 

We know their partners’ names, their children’s ages and the ins-and-outs of their search for the perfect holiday villa. We know the minutiae of their eating habits (the one who sees off six cans of Diet Coke daily, the one with the quinoa packed lunches). We’re often privy to their biggest successes and their most crushing failures. Our work colleagues: we spend eight hours a day with them, exchange hundreds of emails each week and collaborate on projects that eat up months of our lives. Yet, according to charity Relate, 42% of us say that we don’t have a single close friend at work.

For many of us, workplace allegiances play a significant role in our day-to-day happiness. According to a recent study by Bright HR, 68% of workers aged 16-24 described workplace enjoyment as ‘having great colleagues I enjoy spending time with’. 

“For the majority of workers – regardless of industry and generation – camaraderie and social connection are key to their workplace satisfaction,” says Jenny Roper, deputy editor of HR magazine. Or as Sheryl Sandberg put it in Lean In, “Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.”

Having a close ally at work has been proven to improve productivity and employee loyalty, and work alliances can be a key factor in boosting your career progression.

“The truth is, unspoken rules for promotion are often created outside of the office, during long lunches and Fridays at the pub,” explains professor of work and organisation at Nottingham University Business School, Laurie Cohen. “Those who are excluded from these informal networks do, at times, find themselves overlooked for promotions. It’s very hard to manage at an organisational level.”

The right fit

Regardless of the career benefits, who actually enjoys being excluded from anything? When half the office skips out jubilantly for Friday drinks without a glance in our direction, who hasn’t had that gnawing sensation akin to being picked last for the hockey team?

But, given that (to quote every secondary school teacher ever) we’re there to work, not socialise, why do so many of us feel alone and what should we do about it?

When it comes to the office, forming meaningful connections isn’t always as simple as finding a colleague who’ll listen to your woes. As Tim, Martin Freeman’s character in The Office once pointed out, “You spend more time with them than you do your friends and family, but probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk round on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.”

“In my research, many women in male-dominated organisations said they felt lonely,” explains Professor Cohen. “But what they described as ‘loneliness’ was often marginalisation: their voices weren’t being heard.” It’s not just a gender issue – in international companies, people who are seconded to offices in different countries expressed feelings of isolation, as did minority ethnic groups.

And as 37-year-old Roshni’s story illustrates, it’s not always down to fissures in the basic demographics but also to differences in what Professor Cohen terms ‘ways of being’. “I remember at the start of my career I was much quieter than the other grads [Roshni, not her real name, is now head of sales for a financial services company]. On a sales floor, where the person who shouts the loudest is the most valued, I would leave each day feeling like there was something wrong with me.”

Being an introvert in an office full of show-offs – the one who would rather eat their own proverbial hat than lead a ‘team huddle’ – can be just as isolating as being the only woman in the boardroom. As a species we’re driven to form tighter bonds with people who we perceive as ‘like us’. As neuroscientist Dr David Rock points out, it’s an evolutionary development which harks back to a time when humans lived in small social groups and strangers presented a potential danger.

“Relatedness involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group,” writes Rock. When we initially meet any new person, our brain immediately singles them out as a potential threat. “Information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts,” he continues. 

We’re essentially hard-wired to think favourably of the ideas that those we like and relate to present to us. “But when someone is perceived as a foe, different [brain] circuits are used [and] when that person is seen as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly.”

The in crowd

Being on the outside of an office’s dominant grouping – whether because you’re a woman, too loud, too quiet or would just rather talk Brexit than Bake Off – can affect your likelihood to succeed in the company. Psychotherapist and workplace coach Steve Martyn explains, “It can alter your ‘self- perception’. Someone who feels like they don’t fit in begins to doubt what they’re capable of achieving in their career, even beyond their current place of work.” 

What’s more, according to Professor John Cacioppo, who examines the effects of isolation in his book Loneliness: Human Nature And The Need For Social Connection, feeling lonely leads us to isolate ourselves further. It prompts our brain’s self-preservation mechanism to kick in: we see ourselves as rejected by the group and instead of pushing us to be more sociable, our brain drives us to behave cautiously or defensively around others.

Workplace loneliness

Last year, a neuroscientific study found that our brains aren’t merely social; they’re also acutely attuned to social status. The study found that the area in the brain related to reward and motivation went into overdrive when participants looked at pictures of popular colleagues (irrespective of whether the participant actually liked that colleague or not). According to the researchers, our brains “motivate proximity and preferential attention to popular individuals as well as incentivizing interactions with them” (in a similar animal-based study, macaque monkeys were willing to eschew their daily ration of juice for the chance to see pictures of high-status peers).

This suggests we’re essentially hardwired to understand and exploit social hierarchies and driven to seek out popularity for ourselves.

As New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes, though: “It’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction that best predicts loneliness.” We’re no longer spending 30 years with the same company (the average, in fact, is 4.6 years). 

“In the way that we work now – freelancing, hot desking – the time that’s needed to cultivate close friendships isn’t there,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. According to technology company Intuit, by 2020, 40% of workers will be freelance and by 2018, the number of self-employed in the UK will outstrip public sector workers for the first time.

We’re encountering a work-culture catch-22: feeling the need to fit in, but spending too little time with the same people to slow-grow meaningful relationships. And this isn’t just new-starter mentality either. Feelings of isolation tend to increase as we climb the ladder to more senior positions. One Harvard Business School survey found that half of CEOs reported feeling lonely in their roles and 61% believed loneliness hindered their performance. “There might be plenty of people who’ll listen when they talk,” explains Martyn. “But the pool of people with whom they can share worries is much smaller.”

As the boss, it becomes your job to walk the tightrope between likeability and clear leadership; hard decisions can mean you’re resented, mistrusted or both. It can be particularly difficult for women: one survey of 3,000 employees found that two thirds of women and three-quarters of men thought men made better bosses. Female bosses were described as ‘hormonal’, ‘backstabbing’ or more likely to have a ‘hidden agenda.’

Of course, shoehorning yourself into Thursday night drinks, when you’d rather be at home is just as much a recipe for misery. “It requires a huge amount of emotional effort to put a mask on and pretend to be someone you’re not,” explains Burke. “And many clients seek my help, not when they’re experiencing loneliness at work, but when they realise that they’ve changed themselves just to be accepted by people they may not even really like.”

As Burke says, “compromising yourself can be very damaging, not just to self-esteem, but also to career prospects. It’s obvious when someone isn’t being authentic. It rarely achieves its goal and you’re left thinking ‘I don’t know myself.’”

The compromise

Both Martyn and Professor Cohen suggest there is a happy middle ground: having one drink, going to one lunch in every three, saying yes to one invite a week. “The way people become more visible is by going to dinner with colleagues once in a while, or the pub on a Friday,” says Martyn. I don’t mean get exhausted by it, but it helps if you can go along with the culture to a degree.” Or if the invites aren’t rolling in, try asking someone to go for lunch or a drink one on one, few people would say no and they’re more likely to think of you in the next group scenario.

Again, for managers it can be more difficult. As Professor Cacioppo found in his research, ‘curing’ loneliness isn’t just about forcing social interactions; a person doesn’t stop feeling lonely because they are surrounded by people – or because they have others who will listen to them. “It takes reciprocal connection,” he writes. They need to feel like the relationship is as valued by the other person as it is by them. Burke advises seeking out a network of peers who are on a similar level but perhaps in different organisations. “They’ll have similar worries to you.”

“For entrepreneurs in particular, being at the top can be isolating because no-one has done the job before,” says Professor Cohen. In these cases, finding a mentor who can act as a sounding-board might prove to be particularly useful.

Ultimately, humans are social animals with a highly developed (and often innate) understanding of relationships. As Cacioppo writes, “We have survived as a species, not because we’re fast or strong, but because of social protection.” It’s only natural to seek out connections with the people we spend so much of our lives with – our aversion to loneliness has been the central driver that has led us to form such strong societies.

As Sandberg says, “Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.” And if there’s someone in your coalition who’ll make you a sympathetic cup of tea when you’re having a tough day, all the better.

A version of this article was first published on 25 July, 2016, in issue 329 of Stylist.

Photography: Travis Rathbone/, iStock


Share this article


Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.