With many organisations maintaining hybrid and remote working conditions, increasing evidence highlights a downside of this arrangement – loss of workplace social connections.
For some employees, lack of regular camaraderie with colleagues may trigger loneliness. Feelings of loneliness can have a profound impact on employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing, which, in turn, can affect their productivity, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. As organisational practices and cultures evolve around places of work, it’s essential to recognise that a sense of belonging and connection is as vital in the workplace as it is in any other aspect of life.
More people are feeling lonely
First, it’s important to recognise that loneliness is on the rise. A Relationships Australia survey found almost 24% of Australians showed symptoms of loneliness in 2022, compared to 17% in 20181. Similarly, New Zealand statistics show loneliness has increased in 2021 by 4.7%2.
Why loneliness is a workplace issue
In an era where the boundaries between work and personal life can sometimes blur, loneliness is not just a personal issue. In fact, workplace leaders ignore it at their peril. One study3 revealed that 40% of lonely workers said they felt less productive, while 38% reported making more mistakes, and 47% said they were more likely to experience poor wellbeing with 36% reporting in got sick more often.
These findings have been validated by research from The Wharton School and California State University4, which found higher levels of workplace loneliness are related to reduced job performance and commitment to the organisation. On the flipside, Gallup research5 found people who have a best friend in the workplace are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. They also have higher wellbeing and are less likely to get injured at work.
Loneliness is not a one-size-fits-all experience
While loneliness may be on the rise, it’s far from being a universal experience, where individual differences prevail. One employee may relish hybrid working because it provides an opportunity to spend more time around family and/or get more deep-thinking work done. For a single person living alone, ongoing remote work may rob them of their main social outlet.
A 2022 study of worker wellbeing following forced remote work during Covid-19 found that loneliness impacted feelings of emotional exhaustion and work life balance, especially in workers who had low perceived job control6. It may also be more difficult for employees to express feelings of loneliness compared to feelings of stress or anxiety. These factors all make loneliness a complex issue that necessitates a thoughtful, nuanced response.
Fostering Workplace Connection and Beating Loneliness: Leading the Way
To successfully address loneliness, it’s essential to engage deeply with your people, to understanding more about their personal as well as professional lives. This ‘personalised’ approach helps to keep them connected, feeling supported and engaged, leading to better health outcomes for the individuals and your business.
A good place to start is gauging levels of loneliness. Our modern EAP, Thrive Mental Health, provides 24/7 psychological support for individuals and can provide helpful early insights into how your people are faring, without breaking confidences. And digital platforms, like our Vitality Hub, allow for social connections through team challenges and enable connection between teams wherever they’re located.
Addressing loneliness at work
Having a mental health strategy that addresses loneliness not only mitigates the risk to individuals, but also nurtures a vibrant, engaged community of employees, regardless of their work arrangement.
- Signal Loneliness as an area of Focus
Recognise loneliness as a workplace concern, to be incorporated into your organisation’s strategic plan or employee health and wellbeing program with dedicated actions, and measurable outcomes. Develop an integrated workplace response that engages with employees and promotes a stronger sense of community.
- Define a Common Language for Workplace Health and Wellbeing
Develop a shared vocabulary and communication strategy around wellbeing, including addressing loneliness. Encourage open and stigma-free conversations within the workplace. Promote the idea that addressing loneliness contributes to the overall wellbeing of your workforce.
- Collect Data on Employee Health and Wellbeing
Incorporate questions about loneliness and wellbeing into employee surveys and assessments. Use this data to understand the specific needs of your workforce and tailor well-being initiatives accordingly. Make use of digital platforms to gather and analyse this information effectively.
- Leverage Digital Platforms and Technology
Make the most of digital tools to connect employees and foster a sense of community. Use online platforms for virtual team meetings, collaboration, and knowledge sharing. Promote the use of social media and internal networks for employees to interact, share interests, and build connections.
- Community Building through Communities of Interest & Employee-Led Initiatives
Encourage the formation of communities of interest within the organisation and empower them to take the lead in creating and organising virtual social events, clubs, or support groups. These groups can connect employees who share common interests, both professionally and personally. Provide resources and recognition for their efforts in building a sense of community.
It’s important to recognise that loneliness can strike at any time, and by facilitating an open dialogue about loneliness in the workplace, you can create an environment that not only addresses the issue, but also fosters a strong sense of community within your team, whether they are working on-site or remotely.
Our Vitality Hub is a fully integrated digital platform that integrates all the elements of your health, safety, and wellbeing programs, placing your employees’ needs at the forefront. With extensive content, team challenges, self-guided programs, and opportunities for online engagement through team challenges, our platform empowers your teams to stay connected, and nurtures a whole person health approach to employee health and wellbeing.
Additionally, our team of SafetyWorks consultants, which include organisational psychologists, can work with you to devise tailored strategies to identify issues of loneliness and support your leaders in traversing this time with your entire team’s mental wellbeing in mind.
We’d love to hear how you build connection and reduce loneliness amongst your teams as part of your mental health strategy, or if you need help, reach out to hear more about how we can support you and your employees.
Cathy McDonald is a senior industry leader in workplace health and wellbeing and Executive General Manager of Vitality Works, a leading provider in workplace health, safety and wellbeing solutions.
She’s passionate about working in partnership with clients to build safe, well and engaged workforces, to unlock value for businesses and their people. Safe, well and engaged employees mean happier, healthier, and more productive people – which, in turn, results in value protection (reducing injuries/claims) and value creation (enhanced EVP, culture) for businesses.
Cathy spearheaded the establishment of Vitality Works, over 10 years ago, and provides the strategic leadership in workplace health, safety, and wellbeing to our clients.
 Relationships Australia. National survey of the state of relationships in Australia
 Stats NZ. Wellbeing statistics: 2021
 Human Resources Director. Do your employees feel lonely at work?
 Academy of Management Journal. No employee an island: workplace loneliness and Job performance
 Gallup. Your Friends and Your Social Well-Being
 Becker, W. J., Belkin, L. Y., Tuskey, S.E., & Conroy, S. A. (2022). Surviving remotely: How job control and loneliness during a forced shift to remote work impacted employee work behaviors and well-being. Human ResourceManagement, 61(4), 449–464. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.