How to Fight Loneliness? Research Makes Sense of a Growing Business Problem

Lonely employees can be a tremendous drain on an organization—along with the employees themselves. Research has helped to diagnose the problem and is now helping highlight potential solutions for workplaces.

If you’ve ever felt lonely in your cubicle, you’re far from alone. But what does that mean for the organization you work for?

It could be a surprisingly big problem for many organizations, which might feel the drain of lower performance and satisfaction from employees who feel a bit isolated. In recent years, this has become a major subject of research in the business world, with a 2011 study by California State University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business [PDF] drawing attention to the risks of the problem from a business standpoint.

“While loneliness may be thought of as a private emotion, we find here that in employee work loneliness is also a social phenomenon, observable by an employee’s coworkers, and having a significant influence on employee work performance, both in direct tasks, as well as employee team member and team role effectiveness rated by both the employee’s work unit members and supervisor,” the report states.

Since then, the issue has only gained more attention, with organizations such as the United Kingdom’s Campaign to End Loneliness gaining prevalence in recent years.

A recent Inc. article offered suggestions for workers who are feeling lonely, including stretching out of your inner circle and more deeply embracing social situations in the office. While that’s great for those in the office, what should organizations be doing?

New research published this week in Harvard Business Review might offer an answer. The study, conducted by author Shawn Achor and officials from the executive coaching firm BetterUp, aims to help organizations better understand and respond to the loneliness factor.

The research noted that factors such as how long an employee has worked for an organization or a person’s geographic location played a smaller role for many “lonely” employees than their chosen profession. Employees who worked in the legal world were the most lonely, followed by those who worked in engineering and science. And those who worked for nonprofits were more likely to feel lonely than employees in the for-profit space.

While profession played a factor, it was a smaller factor than a person’s life outside of work, with circumstances like relationship status, education level, parental status, and sexual orientation playing a role in loneliness. Per the HBR story:

The portrait of loneliness that emerged from this study is sobering. America’s loneliest workers are single and childless. They are well educated, with doctors and lawyers feeling loneliest of all. They are more likely to work for the government. Most personally, America’s loneliest workers are non-heterosexual, and non-religious. These are the employees at greatest risk in this epidemic.

The report noted that workplaces should do their best to show that they support those employees. Offering positive feedback to employees has been show to be a major help. The report also recommended that leaders support the team as a whole by highlighting collective wins. “This reinforces social cohesion through a shared sense of accomplishment, and avoids leaving some left out in the cold,” the article states.

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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