Strategies To Address the Growing Problem of Workplace Loneliness


Man sitting overwhelmed with workplace loneliness. Sitting on stairs outside office building.

Strategies To Address the Growing Problem of Workplace Loneliness

Strong relationships are one of life’s great rewards. This is as true in the workplace as it is at home. The well-being provider WellSpark Health reports that social connections at work:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve health behaviors and outcomes, including disease management
  • Enhance job performance and engagement
  • Spark innovation and creativity

Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation are a growing problem for employees and employers across the nation.

The U.S. Surgeon General has called loneliness a critical public health challenge. WellSpark Health reports more than half the U.S. population feels lonely. Johns Hopkins University found 25% of employees feel lonely at work, and 35% lack a sense of belonging.

Social connectedness is the antidote, according to Anjali Rameshbabu, Ph.D., in her webcast “The Loneliness Epidemic: How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go From Here?”

Rameshbabu says the quantity of workplace relationships isn’t as critical as the quality. People can work alone without feeling lonely. Similarly, they can feel disconnected even when surrounded by colleagues. Loneliness occurs when employees aren’t experiencing the connections they want and need.

The organizational impact of employee loneliness

Social connections are as essential to well-being as physical health care, education access and quality, and economic stability, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ramifications of loneliness impact individuals and organizations. According to the Harvard Business Review, organizations with employees who feel a sense of belonging enjoy:

  • 56% higher job performance
  • 75% fewer sick days
  • 50% lower turnover rates

The adverse health effects of loneliness on individuals are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, notes WellSpark Health. Loneliness can lead to increased:

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Chronic disease
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Dementia
  • Susceptibility to disease and premature death

Notably, the opposite is also true. Meaningful connections at work can:

  • Reduce stress, loneliness and burnout
  • Improve collaboration, performance, productivity and a sense of belonging
  • Decrease absenteeism
  • Lower health care costs

Strategies to foster healthier employee relationships

Employers can play a significant role in fostering employee connections. Toxic cultures, unrealistic workloads, long hours and high turnover rates have frayed meaningful relationships at work.

Rameshbabu recommends examining your benefits offerings, daily work experience, workplace culture and wellness programs to foster connections and reduce loneliness.

Employee benefits

A good starting point is to conduct a survey asking employees which benefits would help them foster relationships. In addition to giving employees a voice, this strategy ensures interest in your benefits offerings and encourages participation.

Bolstering your mental health coverage, including access and affordability, can support employees struggling with loneliness. Educating employees on the value of work relationships, inclusion and belonging can strengthen workplace connections.

To prevent isolation, the Harvard Medical School recommends implementing policies that help employees connect with others inside and outside of work. For example, policies allowing for flexible schedules, remote work or hybrid arrangements can increase time for social activities outside of work. Setting core hours shows you respect personal lives and ensures employees’ schedules aren’t filled too early or too late in the day.

Daily work experience

Reviewing your employees’ daily work experience can also create time for connections inside and outside of work. For example, examining ways to streamline tasks, project management and workflows can reduce unrealistic workloads and deadlines.

Another strategy is putting people ahead of technology. Encourage employees to put away phones and laptops during conversations and meetings.

Technology is great for connecting employees around the globe, but it doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections. Screen fatigue is real, and people can feel lonely when communicating via technology all day. Employees can also feel lonely in crowded conference rooms. Whether in person or virtual, seek ways to shorten meetings and use that time to increase personal connections. Start meetings by checking in with attendees on topics unrelated to work.

Small gestures throughout the workday can also create meaningful connections. Encourage employees to invite a colleague for a sit-down meal or go for a walk with a different coworker once a week.

Workplace culture

The importance of culture can’t be overstated. Employees with a sense of belonging are more likely to remain with an organization, Rameshbabu notes.

She recommends looking at every workplace well-being effort through the three lenses of employees, managers and company leaders. Efforts to reduce loneliness are sustainable only when they meet needs and goals at all levels of an organization.

Leaders who realize the financial and health impacts of loneliness will be more inclined to encourage participation in social activities and group wellness initiatives. To increase participation in wellness programs, ask your executives and managers to take part in social activities and talk about their benefits.

Also, train your managers to foster team relationships. This helps reduce isolation and improve productivity, performance and retention. According to Benefits Magazine, frontline employees with supportive managers are four times more likely to remain in their current jobs. Train executives and managers to check in with employees regularly to reduce feelings of loneliness.

Encourage employee connections, but don’t force them. Mandating and pressuring employees to participate in initiatives will likely backfire. Instead, create various opportunities that appeal to different personalities at different points in their lives and careers. Encourage them to spread endorsements through word of mouth and social media.

Wellness programs

Stand-alone wellness programs become more effective when they are part of a larger, strategic mission. Connect the dots on your wellness initiatives to create a holistic approach to employee relationships.

For example, emails announcing upcoming fitness classes or meditation workshops could also include information on social connectedness. Provide tips for connecting with colleagues, such as meeting for coffee. Include links to data on loneliness and its impact on emotional and physical health.

Combining your initiatives ensures equity and accessibility. Not everyone will participate in wellness programs. But you should encourage all employees to engage and make sure they have equal opportunities. Include social connections in existing surveys to collect data on your wellness efforts. These metrics will provide insights into participation rates and employee sentiment so you can see what works and where you need to pivot.

Explore your options

For more ideas on combatting loneliness and fostering workplace relationships, talk to your benefits adviser. They can help you explore wellness programs, social activities and other well-being efforts to strengthen workplace connections.