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The Cure for Workplace Loneliness

Loneliness is on the rise, according to a new study commissioned by Cigna, with more than 3 in 5 Americans reporting they feel “left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.” Can you guess which generation feels the most alone? Would you believe the youngest… the ones with the most followers, likes, shares, stories, etc. 81% of Gen Z are lonely, compared to 49% of Boomers, 69% of Millenials, and 64% of Gen X.

Blame social media. More time spent in front of screens equals less time spent with real people equals greater loneliness. It’s the most obvious, but not the only, culprit. Add in:

  1. the natural imposter’s syndrome that less experienced workers feel,
  2. the anxiety about being called out for asking silly questions,
  3. a preference for email and text over personal interactions, and
  4. more remote work scenarios (Cigna found that remote workers were more likely to say their relationships with others weren’t meaningful and that they didn’t have anyone to turn to)

and suddenly you’ve got a perfect tsunami on your hands. It’s easy, almost predictable, for younger workers to feel isolated. Two questions: Is it any worse now than it’s always been? and Is this a problem that employers need to address?

Strong opinions abound. The regular news sources have picked up Cigna’s loneliness study like a snowball rolling downhill. Loneliness is the new sleep deprivation, the new stress. It’s leading to soaring depression and suicide rates, not to mention illness, decreased productivity and retention issues. If you don’t believe it’s the next major health epidemic, then you might be in the minority that’s saying, as one WSJ subscriber did: “Don’t worry about the poor little darlings. Time will age them; and, hopefully, maturity will be the cure for their ills. We have lowered too many ages for too many experiences. They are not sufficiently mentally developed to cope with life.”

This question — Is it up to employers to solve? — has captured my attention. Pay inequality, after all, is something companies control and should take ownership of. But loneliness? Except that it has to be part of the inclusion and diversity dialogue. How do you create an environment where everyone feels welcome?

I’m not asking because I have the answer. But I’m curious about the cure. I don’t feel/have never felt lonely, but I did suddenly need to become an expert when we moved from New Jersey to Colorado last year. Our daughters, ages 10 and 12, desperately missed their friends and familiar routines. They felt like they’d never fit in at their new schools. As a parent, I went looking for resources that would build their social skills, confidence, ability to be alone without feeling like the outcast, and was met with buddy benches and therapy dogs. Which, look, are not unlike office happy hours, trust-building exercises or corporate retreats.

Do they work though? Is there a magic pill to stamp out loneliness and broker acceptance?

At the very time I’m writing this, I happened on a quote in my fiction reading: “Loneliness is not about how many people you have around. It’s about whether or not you feel connected. Whether or not you’re able to be yourself… The lonely feeling comes from not being known.”

How can we help the people we hire feel “seen” in the workplace? Recognized, understood, respected by their colleagues? What made a difference for my daughters, more than any guidance counselor or HR directive, was having one true friend plus one true advocate. The friend introduced them to peers, the advocate soothed their anxieties and gave them a role in the group.

Does it sound like I’m on the right track? Do you agree that loneliness is a growing problem that employers need to address? Or maybe your company has a successful solution in place already? Would love to hear from you.

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