Defeating Workplace Loneliness: A Guide for Leaders and HR Professionals

January 10, 2024

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
A man stood in sillhouette looking up at a galaxy of stars

You may be thinking, how can workplace loneliness be a real thing? Like me, you probably work in an organization with many colleagues. I interact with clients and connections all over the world. Beyond that, I have nearly seven thousand people in my network on LinkedIn, I write articles that are read by tens of thousands of people and appear in episodes of a podcast with a wide audience every month. In many ways, I’ve never been more influential than I am today, nor affected so many people’s lives.

It’s an illusion.

The reality is that I spend almost every day on my own, sitting in my study, staring at a screen, surrounded by fields, geese and trees but very few people. I see colleagues, clients and those I mentor on video calls most days, but rarely, if ever, meet them. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it and it brings many moments of real satisfaction and personal fulfilment. But much of the time I’m lonely. Not just alone but entirely disconnected from my fellow humans. This is workplace loneliness.

Ironically, I’m not alone in this experience. Millions of people now live this way, facing social isolation at work as a result of remote work challenges.

So why am I writing about this now and what does it have to do with leaders or leadership?

Largely because research by organizations like the BBC and the Campaign to End Loneliness has shown workplace loneliness to have reached almost epidemic levels, leading the US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, to state publicly in 2023 that “loneliness poses a public health risk on a par with smoking and drinking”. Just a few weeks ago, the World Health Organization launched a new Commission on Social Connection, citing it as a ‘pressing health threat’ and bringing together policy-makers and influencers from several governments. Their aim is to agree social-connection strategies and solutions that the world can adopt.

The Commission states that research evidence confirms that people who experience loneliness face real and life-threatening health consequences. They say the disconnected ‘Face a higher risk of early death’ and also that ‘Social isolation and loneliness are linked to anxiety, depression, suicide, and dementia and can increase risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke’.

Moreover, the disconnection and isolation affects whole organizations, communities and societies too. Therefore, it is up to leaders in those contexts to find ways to combat this.

This is not the ‘fault’ of those who have become disconnected or feel isolated. It is a mental health in the workplace issue that means they typically won’t be able to fix it themselves. It cannot be viewed as ‘their problem’ and ‘nothing to do with the organization and its leaders’ – although I’ve heard that said more often than I would like.

As a key part of workplace wellbeing, it is up to those who make policy, create cultures, shape organizational purpose and define organizational behaviour to re-shape the way we live to make it more human-centred. Addressing loneliness in the workplace by creating a connected, supportive culture is a key part of employee engagement in organizations with remote working. Strategies for combating workplace loneliness ensure there is a direct leadership impact on employee happiness. But what can – and should – leaders do to combat employee isolation and build a positive work environment?

Key Findings of Recent Research

The Campaign to End Loneliness identifies three ‘strains’ of loneliness:

Emotional – ‘the absence of meaningful relationships’
Social – a ‘perceived deficit in the quality of social connections’
Existential – a ‘feeling of fundamental separateness from others and the wider world’

The EU conducted a large survey across member states in 2022, indicating that loneliness was most prevalent in Ireland, followed by Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Greece. At the opposite end of the scale, it was least significant in Netherlands, Czech Republic, Croatia and Austria.

In a survey in late 2022, Gallup & Meta identified that almost 25% of the world experiences significant loneliness and that this is broadly equal by gender, but more prevalent among young people than the old – with ages 19-29 experiencing the most workplace loneliness.

Some aspects of the ‘why’ are clear enough. Pandemic, WFH, Technology, Social Media, Short-term Gigs, Thousands of ‘connections’ but little human contact, streamlined organizations, spending cuts, cost of living rises, poor availability of housing… the list goes on and on.

The burning question is not ‘Why’…. it is ‘What can leaders do about it?’

The leadership role in reducing employee isolation and workplace loneliness

I don’t think this can easily just be ‘fixed’. However, below are some leadership strategies for combating isolation and fostering a supportive work environment.

1. Conduct a ‘connection audit’. Find out how many of your people feel less connected than they want to. Ask them why they think that is and what they think would make it better.

2. Assess your culture. How does it feel to work there? Is it conducive to people feeling engaged and connected? How do your vision, strategy and goals enable people to feel connected to each other and to the organization?

3. Assess whether leaders help or hinder across the organization and why. What is the prevailing leadership style? Is it disconnecting or connecting people? Do you lead your people or simply manage your operations and activities?

4. How are you managing performance? What passes for performance management in many organizations is still often carrot and stick – dishing our rewards to those who achieve targets and disadvantages to those who don’t. It’s old fashioned. It generally doesn’t work anymore. Find a better way.

5. Evaluate your workspaces. Many organizations’ premises and workspaces still feel like it’s the 1980s. Open plan offices and pig-pens have had their day and weren’t a very good idea even then. Can people get together to talk and come up with ideas whenever they need or want to? Or do they have to book a meeting room, weeks in advance – only to discover they’re all full. If operations are virtual or remote, consider whether that’s working for everyone and what else you might do.

There is little doubt that disconnection is damaging our health, mentally & physically. At work, it’s reducing performance and effectiveness and making it harder for us to recruit, retain and engage our people. We struggle to compete, to innovate and to perform.

We have to do something. It starts with taking stock of where we are and then taking action to begin re-engaging and re-connecting our people.

The time is now.

About the author:

Nigel Girling is a CMI Chartered Companion, Executive Mentor, former CEO of the The National Centre for Strategic Leadership and former member of the government’s Employee Engagement Task Force Steering Group. He has written extensively about all aspects of leadership and been published in multiple journals and publications, as well as being a keynote speaker at various leadership conferences and events.

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