11 Ways to Combat the Epidemic of Loneliness at Work

Silhouette of a man in a suit standing in front of large windows with closed blinds, looking outside, reflecting the quiet solitude of workplace loneliness.

While the shift to remote work has had clear benefits for workers, such as reducing (or even eliminating) commute times and improving work-life balance, it’s also had downsides. Among the most significant is the spreading epidemic of loneliness at work.

Feelings of emotional and psychological isolation negatively impact employee mental health and business effectiveness. The good news is that the problem is increasingly being recognized, and there are positive steps leaders can take to reduce loneliness and its impacts in the workplace.

The Impact of Loneliness in the Workplace

As we’ve noted previously, workplace relationships and well-being play a crucial role in building high-performance teams. Forming healthy relationships with co-workers makes employees more productive, creative, collaborative, and likely to stay. They have higher job satisfaction with lower absenteeism and burnout.

Conversely, workers who lack those relationships are less engaged, satisfied, and loyal. Loneliness negatively impacts employee happiness, output, and even physical health.

Jessica Stillman wrote in Inc. magazine, “According to the Surgeon General, loneliness is actually a national emergency. And our disconnection at work is a huge part of the problem. ‘Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis,’ warned Dr. Vivek Murthy last year.”

Erica Pandey of Axios adds, “The new, scattered working world is disrupting one of the long-standing traditions of the workplace: making friends with colleagues…It’s adding to America’s worsening loneliness crisis, as people increasingly feel like the critical social component of working has disappeared… Scattered workplaces can also make getting through challenges or tough times even more difficult.”

The good news is that addressing workplace loneliness and helping employees build positive relationships pays dividends. Stillman notes, “Research has found that work friends make us more productive, resilient, engaged, and less stressed.”

The Epidemic of Loneliness at Work by the Numbers

Recent research studies have quantified the extent of the problem and its adverse impacts on both workers and their employers. Among the critical findings per Axios and other sources:

  • “Remote and hybrid work have swept America… 22 million Americans are fully remote, according to Pew Research Center. Millions more telecommute for some part of the week.
  • “As remote and hybrid work has increased, so have meetings. Workers spend three times as much of their days in meetings now compared with 2020, per Microsoft.
  • “Even people who work in-person spend 25% of their time in virtual meetings, the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • “The share of U.S. workers who say they know their coworkers on a personal level has fallen from around 80% in 2019 to around 67% today, according to the WSJ.
  • “In January 2020, 47% of American workers believed someone at work cared about them, per Gallup polling. That’s fallen to 38%.
  • “The shifts in ways of working are affecting all workers: While 20% of fully remote workers report feeling loneliness for ‘a lot’ of the day, almost the same share (19%) of onsite workers report the same, per Gallup.”
  • Gallup data from June showed only 17% of hybrid workers had a “best friend” at work, down from 22% in 2019, per Inc. magazine.
  • And finally, according to the Economic Times, loneliness permeates many organizations from bottom to top. “CEOs often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation due to the pressures and responsibilities of their roles, according to a Harvard Business Review survey. 50% of CEOs reported feeling lonely, with 61% believing it hindered their performance. First-time CEOs were particularly susceptible, with nearly 70% reporting negative effects on their performance.”

Clearly, both the extent of workplace loneliness and its negative impacts demand attention from leadership. The word “epidemic” isn’t hyperbole. What’s to be done to counter this trend?

How to Combat Loneliness at Work

Regardless of the specific structure of your workplace environment—your mix of in-the-office, remote, and hybrid work—it’s vital to find ways to get together in person. While it’s certainly true that remote communication and collaboration technology has improved greatly over the past few years, meeting and mixing with coworkers live, in person, and face-to-face is still crucial for forming strong relationships.

As noted in the Virtual Events Group (VEG) newsletter, “One of the biggest downsides (of working from home) is loneliness. One of the remedies stepping in to fill the gap between the solitude of toiling alone and the joy of sharing ideas are events and conferences…Gathering in person is the gold standard for detecting ‘liveness.’ I may disagree with you or not trust you, but at least I can be sure that it’s you in the flesh.”

Here are 11 specific ways to address workplace loneliness.

1. Adopt Open-Door Policies

Create an open communication culture where employees are encouraged to interact spontaneously. Ask every employee with an office door to keep it open except when engaged in a conversation or heads-down on a project.

Train managers to conduct regular one-on-one sessions and model effective communication through programs like our Manager’s Guide to Business Coaching.

2. Organize Free Workplace Lunches

Everyone eats, and almost everyone appreciates a free lunch. Getting together over food is a great way to encourage informal, open interaction. Want to really mix it up? Arrange one free lunch per quarter where employees aren’t allowed to discuss work (or are at least discouraged from discussing it) and are randomly assigned to tables so they interact with people they don’t talk to frequently.

In addition, as noted in our post on resolving the return-to-the-office dilemma, free lunches are a great way to entice remote employees to spend the day in the workplace.

3. Plan Formal and Informal Events

Organize activities like museum and aquarium tours, watching pro or college sports games, happy hours, bowling nights, and Topgolf outings to allow employees to have fun and get together outside the workplace.

4. Remember the 40-1-5 Formula

Per Stillman’s Inc. article, “If bosses want to foster feelings of connection and belonging at work, three numbers can get you started: 

40: the number of seconds it takes for loneliness to lessen during a two-person interaction.

1: the number of work friends it takes to feel less lonely.

5: the number of minutes it takes in a team meeting to share something personal.”

While you can’t artificially force interaction, you can encourage and enable it through policies and workplace design. Open-door policies, break rooms, and common areas designed for conversation create conducive conditions for communication.

Make small talk a planned element in meetings. Stillman adds, “Opening meetings with five minutes of non-work conversation might seem like a waste of time to the exceptionally hard charging. But even this small glimpse into your team members’ personal lives and personalities will make work feel less impersonal and lessen loneliness.”

5. Improve Your Meetings

Speaking of meetings, as noted above, workers today spent a lot of time in meetings. Task-oriented meetings often aren’t the best environments for forming personal connections, but if we ask employees to spend 25% (or more) of their time in meetings, let’s at least run better meetings.

Professional development workshops and programs like Conducting Better Virtual Meetings, Meeting Management, and Virtual Meetings Tune-Up enable your managers to run crisper, more effective meetings with clear objectives, processes, and takeaways. They’ll make your meetings feel more productive and less like a “that could have been an email” waste of time.

6. Foster Inclusive Leadership

Train leaders and managers to recognize signs of workplace loneliness and to create an inclusive environment. Leaders should be approachable, empathetic, and proactive in engaging with their teams to build strong relationships.

While lousy leadership significantly contributes to employee unhappiness and loneliness in the workplace, effective leadership counters those issues.

Again, professional development workshops can play an important role. Programs like Emotional Intelligence Training and our DiSC Workshop help leaders and their teams recognize personality traits and communication styles in themselves and others, leading to personal growth and more effective collaboration.

7. Use Onboarding to Build Relationships

As Axios notes, “Joining a new company remotely — especially as a new grad with little to no experience navigating a workplace — is often lonely.” The first few weeks on the job are critical for making new workers, particularly those who won’t be in the office full-time, feel like part of the team and the organization. It shouldn’t be all about filling out forms, reading the employee handbook, and watching safety videos.

All new employees, even those who’ll be working full-time remotely, should spend at least a week in the office during their first month to meet and interact with their boss and co-workers in person. They should also eat lunch with co-workers every day that week and have at least one evening dinner to make the most of opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

We’ve noted that team building is vital in new employee orientation. Involving new employees in organized team building activities not only adds an element of fun to their first few weeks on the job; it also builds trust, fosters personal connections, improves team dynamics, and creates shared experiences.

Finally, organized corporate training is an essential component in effective onboarding. It is not only important for quickly getting new employees up to speed and productive but also for making them feel welcome and forming relationships with coworkers.

8. Encourage Employee Networks and Affinity Groups

Support forming employee resource or affinity groups that allow individuals with shared interests to connect and support each other. These groups can provide a sense of belonging and community within the workplace.

9. Recognize and Reward Employees

Regularly acknowledge and celebrate employee achievements and contributions. Recognition can help employees feel valued and appreciated, reducing feelings of isolation and enhancing their sense of belonging.

10. Implement a Regular Cadence of Team Building Programs

Professional corporate team building programs deliver on core pillars, including communication, collaboration, and relationship building. When done regularly, team building activities help create and maintain a high-performance culture (as well as healthy workplace relationships).

Team building programs can be chosen and customized to meet specific business objectives, such as improving cross-departmental collaboration or fostering creative problem-solving.

A program like Speed Networking is ideal (and a lot of fun) to combat loneliness in the workplace and help employees feel more connected. Team members report to an assigned table, where they engage in an immersive 15-minute challenge. Once completed, teams celebrate their success, and then participants move to another table to take on a new challenge with a new set of team members.

To make an even more significant personal impact, consider a charitable corporate social responsibility (CSR) event that benefits children, the homeless, military veterans or active duty, or other deserving groups and nonprofits.

For example, our Bike Build Donation® program gives kids growing up in difficult circumstances their first bike. Build-a-Wheelchair® and Build-A-Rollator provide assistive devices to those with mobility challenges. Our Hydroponics for Hunger, Mini-Golf Build, and Food Donation programs enable your teams to assist food shelves and other organizations addressing food insecurity.

Like all team-building exercises, these activities foster collaboration and relationship-building but also make workers feel good about themselves, their company, and their coworkers by giving back to the community. Thus, these events create a powerful shared emotional experience for participants.

11. Find Ways to Get Together In-Person

As noted above, “gathering in person is the gold standard for detecting ‘liveness.’” Undoubtedly, virtual collaboration and meeting tools can help us feel connected when we can’t be together, but periodically getting together in person is vital to effectively combat loneliness, turnover, and disengagement.

All-company meetings and sales kickoffs are fantastic for bringing everyone in the company together in one place for a few days. Still, they are also busy and can seem almost overwhelming. And they are expensive, making them impractical to do frequently.

At Best Corporate Events, we are, of course, in the business of bringing people together and building personal connections. One of the ways we stay connected to our professional facilitators across the country is through periodic road trips by leadership and headquarters staff to visit and spend time in person with all of our facilitators and people in each region.

Recognizing the extent of employee loneliness and its corrosive effects on personal and business health is a start. Creating opportunities to get together face-to-face, adopting policies that encourage workplace interaction, running better meetings, offering free lunches, organizing onboarding programs, and having regular cadences of team-building events are just a few of the ways to effectively address loneliness in the workplace.

Final Thoughts on Combating the Epidemic of Loneliness at Work

The increase in remote and hybrid workplace structures has benefits employees (such as improved work/life balance) and their employers (such as reduced office space costs). But it has also had its dark side, including an increase in worker feelings of loneliness and isolation that can reasonably be termed an “epidemic” based on recent studies.

Among the statistics cited above:

  • The share of U.S. workers who say they know their coworkers on a personal level has fallen from 80% in 2019 to 67% today.
  • The proportion of American workers who believe “someone at work cares about them” has declined from 47% to 38%.
  • 20% of fully remote workers and 19% of onsite workers report feeling loneliness for “a lot” of the day.
  • Only 17% of hybrid workers say they have a “best friend” at work, down from 22% in 2019.
  • Loneliness permeates many organizations from bottom to top. Per HBR, 50% of CEOs report feeling lonely.

Fortunately, organizations can take positive steps to combat loneliness at work. Once they acknowledge the problem, businesses can change workplace design, policies, meeting protocols, practices (e.g., employee lunches and recognition events), and onboarding programs to help employees form stronger relationships within the workplace.

Regardless of the company’s structure, finding ways to get together in person is vital, particularly as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) begin to play a bigger role. To make the most of these opportunities to gather face-to-face, a regular cadence of team building is highly effective at developing a culture of high performance and forming and developing strong workplace relationships.

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Team building activities have come a long way from the days of “trust falls” (trite), ropes courses (dangerous), and paintball (just a really bad idea). Today’s team building is serious business, delivering measurable results in terms of improved and increased collaboration, employee engagement, and productivity.

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