If you’ve been in the workforce for any length of time, you’re probably already well aware that people are more lonely than ever at work. We’re social creatures after all, and we don’t stop seeking community and connection just because we’re on the clock.
While it’s certainly possible to experience workplace loneliness while working in a crowded office, surrounded by other people, this rapidly evolving phenomenon has been exacerbated by the shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent studies, including the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2023 Loneliness Epidemic Report, highlight an alarming increase in workplace loneliness and note its potentially severe health consequences—such as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression, and even premature death.
Despite these alarming effects, many organizations aren’t doing enough to address workplace loneliness. As revealed in a 2022 Deloitte survey, while 91% of executives believe that they prioritize employee well-being, only 56% of employees share this belief. Moreover, a 2020 Deloitte report showed a readiness gap with 79% of organizations recognizing the importance of belonging, but only 13% felt ready to address it.
Addressing workplace loneliness is an urgent imperative that requires comprehensive organizational commitment and innovative strategies to foster a culture of inclusiveness and belonging, particularly in remote work environments.
But Is Workplace Loneliness a DEI Issue?
The short answer? Absolutely. Given that DEI leaders are integral to fostering an inclusive, equitable, and engaged workforce, they play a pivotal role in addressing this issue. Workplace loneliness is linked to crucial outcomes such as job performance, turnover intentions, and job satisfaction, and hence, addressing it is not just a moral imperative but also key to organizational success.
Recognizing the significance of organizational factors in perpetuating workplace loneliness, my colleagues—Ada Cenkci, Ph.D., Megan Downing, Ph.D., and Tuba Bircan, Ph.D.—and I applied a mixed-method research approach to conduct a study over a three-month period. This approach, which uses survey instrumentation and in-depth interviews, allowed us to focus on workplace loneliness and belonging. Our study involved two companies: a technology firm and a healthcare company, both with at least a 75% remote workforce (although the technology firm also incorporated some hybrid and face-to-face work environments). By considering factors such as industry type, remote work practices, and organizational scale, we captured a broad range of perspectives.
The significantly larger technology company provided contrasting views to the smaller healthcare company on the implementation and consequences of remote work, deepening our understanding of the relationship between remote work, various industries, and organizational size. Our research, in combination with a comprehensive scoping review of relevant literature, revealed surprising outcomes that underscore the importance of addressing workplace loneliness and fostering belonging.
One particularly interesting finding was the pervasive influence of organizational and team-level factors— such as company culture, politics, team climate issues, and managerial behavior—on workplace loneliness. While remote work can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, our study revealed that these systemic issues can also significantly affect workplace loneliness, a point often overlooked in the popular narrative surrounding this topic.
My colleagues and I also found workplace loneliness to be more prevalent among employees from underrepresented groups, highlighting the need for effective strategies to increase a sense of belonging and reduce workplace loneliness. Participants underscored the importance of acceptance and support for underrepresented groups, along with the need to counter the negative effects of exclusion, pressure to conform, and stereotypes.
The research thus recommends a priority on creating inclusive environments that value diverse social identities and challenge biases, in order to effectively address workplace loneliness and foster a sense of belonging among employees. (The full findings of our research is forthcoming in a book entitled Overcoming Workplace Loneliness: Cultivating Belonging for a Remote Workforce with Emerald Publishing in the fall of 2023.)
How DEI Leaders Can Address Workplace Loneliness
Organizations must adopt a comprehensive strategy to combat workplace loneliness, beginning by understanding their employees’ unique needs and preferences. Loneliness typically results from a lack of connection, highlighting the need for leaders to prioritize leadership practices that foster meaningful relationships.
Take the time to understand employees and their needs. Recognize changes in behavior and provide necessary support. Listen to and show respect for employees. Focus on employee onboarding rather than orientation by going beyond “check the box” activities such as providing necessary equipment or access.
Additionally, managers should be trained to identify and address workplace loneliness, particularly in remote work environments where non-verbal cues may be missed. Understanding the impact of workplace loneliness on employees, particularly in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion, is crucial for leaders.
As DEI professionals, we must recognize that workplace loneliness is not solely a by-product of remote work. Instead, it is rooted in systemic issues within organizations. We must be innovative and adjust our strategies, emphasizing psychological safety and genuine care, especially in remote work contexts. We must look beyond “’social” solutions, such as happy hours and company retreats, and create comprehensive strategies that also tackle structural and cultural barriers contributing to workplace loneliness.
The Time Is Now
The urgency to tackle workplace loneliness cannot be overstated. As flexible and remote work models become increasingly common, the trend of escalating workplace loneliness won’t reverse on its own. The longer we postpone action, the more severe the repercussions will be on our workforce and organizations.
In the short term, organizations that effectively address workplace loneliness will likely see improvements in employee well-being, engagement, and productivity. However, in the long term, addressing workplace loneliness could also become a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent.
As remote and flexible work models continue to become the norm, organizations that have effective strategies to combat workplace loneliness will be better positioned to navigate this new world of work. Will your organization be ready?