Workplace Loneliness the latest HR Challenge

by Mar 23, 2021

Addressing the modern phenomenon of workplace loneliness

The World Health Organisation recognises the need for increased vigilance around mental heath issues for the high levels of people impacted by the global pandemic. 70% of U.S. employees cite this period as the most stressful in their careers. This can be around the lack of social interaction, workplace loneliness, fear of getting the virus, stress of financial issues, being unemployed or sick and so much more.

Today, employees commonly cite isolation and anxiety as significant issues in their daily working lives rather than boredom and repetition. Employee engagement is at an all-time low and despite all the technology at our disposal to take over the heavy lifting in terms of routine tasks in our jobs, productivity is on the decline globally. Employers are under huge pressure to provide wellness programmes to address these challenges.

Employee wellbeing

A recent report from Mercer says that while 48% of executives rank employees’ wellbeing as a major workplace challenge, only 29% of HR leaders actually have a health and wellbeing strategy. Addressing the modern phenomenon of workplace loneliness and a lack of belonging, needs to be high on the list of HR and leadership priorities. These two elements which have been around for a while have been further highlighted by the global pandemic and imposed working from home conditions.

We have covered the decline of civility in public discourse and interaction before the pandemic, but many of these negative behaviours and attitudes have spilled into our remote workplaces.  If workplace loneliness and lack of support were a challenge pre-COVID19 they are more so now.

workplace loneliness

What employees want

There has been a flood of research on what is now called the “employee experience” to try and establish what people are really looking for in their ideal workplace. All the research shows that people want the same things. And it’s not what you think. It’s not about massive salaries, fancy cars, expense accounts or first-class travel.

Research from Hayes indicates that 74%  of younger employees would accept a pay cut for a chance to work at their ideal job, and 23%of those seeking a job wouldn’t need a pay increase to take a new position.

People are looking for meaningful work, fair pay (not even high pay), opportunities for growth, trust and respect. Research from TINYpulse suggests that interaction with colleagues is one of the main reasons why people enjoy going to work, which impacts employee retention. Language that keeps coming up into all research is empathy, compassion, gratitude and feeling connected.  This has largely disappeared in the pandemic and many managers have not been trained to lead remote teams.

Putting the human into HR

Pre-pandemic, conferences centred on Human Resources and tech all involved an element of bringing the human into HR. We now need to replace the word “resources” with “relationships.” Even before the pandemic many employees spent large parts of the day working in isolation, despite being surrounded by colleagues. Many sat in open-plan offices or stuck in a pod, quite often wearing headphones to block out ambient noise. They ate lunch at a desk, perhaps ordered via an app, while checking out their social media updates. If they commuted on public transport, buses and trains are now largely silent as people focus on their devices.

The changes to office practices brought on by COVID19 have reduced a sense of belonging even further, to accentuate workplace loneliness. Unmanaged unconscious bias also contributes to workers feeling more isolated as they might be excluded by the “dominant ” group in toxic workplace cultures. This can include: race, religion, physical ability, nationality, sexual orientation as well as gender.

workplace loneliness

Millennials are more lonely

According to a survey from YouGov finds that “Millennials report feeling lonely much more often than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts. While 30 percent of Millennials say they always or often feel lonely, just one in five (20%) members of Generation X says the same. Even fewer Baby Boomers (15%) report feeling lonely with the same frequency .”

Research in the UK finds that men also feel more lonely than women. They are at risk of isolation because research shows they make friends less easily than women and don’t take part in as many social activities or community groups. More than one in 10 men are lonely but would not admit it. A study from Eurostat indicates that 77% of suicides in the EU involve men.

Lonely at the top

Workplace loneliness doesn’t always improve with career success. One of the comments I frequently hear is from senior executives who admit one of their biggest challenges is not having someone to discuss their toughest issues. Many men feel they need to be infallible, but they too need a safe place to air their concerns. Research in the 2012 HBR found that 61% of CEOs felt that workplace loneliness hindered their performance.  If men feel it, then so do female executives who have even fewer “like minded“ colleagues to bounce ideas off accentuated frequently when they are the only woman in the room.

The role of HR to stem workplace loneliness

  • Build an inclusive corporate culture that focuses on respect, trust and connection. Persuade your leaders to include these in your company’s mission statement and act on them.
  • Carry out employee experience research. Do your people feel genuinely included and respected? If not why not? Set up focus groups to tackle any highlighted issues.
  • Introduce wellness support programmes for employees. This could include buddy and group support, coaching, training.
  • Understanding that flexibility does not mean 24/7 availability.
  • Give unconscious bias training?
  • Arrange training on building inclusive teams and managing remote teams.

The World Economic Forum highlighted 10 new skills for 2030. They are all in the new power or essential skills which were previously called soft skills. These qualities are not just for our organisations to make them more effective, where combatting workplace loneliness will be a positive by-product.

They should also be a benchmark for the way to conduct ourselves in our wider lives and in all our human relationships especially post pandemic.

If your organisation needs support to build an inclusive workplace culture get in touch now 



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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