Experiencing loneliness at work

A stylised icon showing one person at the front of a small crowd, with other people behind them, representing support and togetherness

by Rob Hill

I’m a big fan of BBC’s Desert Island Discs link, that Radio 4 stalwart which has been on air for over 80 years (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr ). Like all the best ideas, its beauty (and no doubt longevity) lies in its simplicity. Most of us can’t resist picking or listing our favourite things, and then telling other people why we love them so much.

For those who don’t know, the concept involves you being stranded on a desert island, with certain objects of your choice – 8 songs, one book, and one luxury. And the luxury can’t be anything practical that would help you survive. No Swiss Army knives or cooking sets allowed.

In pretty much every episode the castaway is asked “how will you cope on a desert island?”. Personally I’ve always thought I’d cope quite well. Maybe not from a practical perspective. I wouldn’t be able to confidently knock up a weather resistant shelter, collect fresh water, or start harvesting non-poisonous food (mmm, these mysterious red berries look sooo delicious).

But I reckon I’d be fine on my own. This is something many of the guests reflect on. The prospect of just one’s own company in perpetuity. Only the birds to talk to. A total lack of human contact.

I’m comfortable in my own company. I quite like being alone. I imagine myself being kept fully occupied using my luxury (a huge stack of Moleskine notebooks and pens) to document all the wildlife I’m going to see.

Would I be lonely? Well, I’m alone on a desert island. It’s inevitable at some point. And it’s probably arrogant to suggest I wouldn’t ever be lonely.

But being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.

What do we mean by loneliness?

Loneliness is of course a natural human emotion. Nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. We all feel it, and it’s probably a sign that we need a bit of contact with other people.

But loneliness can also mean feeling disconnected from the people around us, even those we see regularly. Just as it’s possible to be comfortable in your own company, it’s also possible to feel lonely when surrounded by other people. You can sit there thinking “I don’t get anyone here. They all seem so different to me.”

Aligning with Loneliness Awareness Week, we’re concentrating on loneliness at work for this blog post. But before we do that, I recommend looking at this FAQs page (https://www.lonelinessawarenessweek.org/faqs ), which explores in more detail what defines loneliness, and how we place it within the context of our lives.

Loneliness Awareness Week

Loneliness Awareness Week (https://www.lonelinessawarenessweek.org/about ) is brought to you by the Marmalade Trust, and it aims to get people talking about loneliness, across the UK and beyond.

The theme for 2024 is Random Acts of Connection, encouraging everyone to increase those simple moments of social interaction which can help us all feel happier and less lonely. What’s a random act of connection? Something simple, taking a moment to talk to someone, sharing a memory with an old friend, joining a local community group.

Loneliness has a negative effect on our mental health. And the whole point is that these moments of connection genuinely do make a positive difference.

Loneliness at work

The Covid pandemic feels like a long time ago, but it’s had a lasting impact way we work. And whilst many of us are back in the office (often full time), it’s still possible to feel lonely at work if we’re at home behind the laptop.

Working in a shared space is very important for many of us. We value the connections we make there – all the little interactions, all those chats when we make coffee or sit next to someone at a desk.

Working from home can be lonely. We lose those face-to-face chats and interactions. Speaking to a colleague on a laptop screen just isn’t the same for some people! In April 2022, Mental Health UK and YouGov conducted a poll that asked people about their experiences of loneliness in the workplace (https://mentalhealth-uk.org/help-and-information/loneliness-and-mental-health-at-work/).

And we think the results were eye-opening:

  • 1 in 5 of us (20%) feel lonely at work on a typical working day
  • 23% agreed that feeling lonely at work has affected their mental health
  • 46% wouldn’t feel confident in letting a colleague know that they felt lonely or isolated at work
  • Those aged 18-24 were twice as likely to feel lonely at work compared older age groups

What causes loneliness in the workplace?

The study found that the biggest impact on our mental health at work – the loss of face-to-face contact – has a direct influence on loneliness.

  • 43% agreed that lack of contact time with their colleagues could impact their mental health
  • This figure rose to 55% amongst younger workers (aged 18-34)
  • 49% of workers aged 18-34 agreed a lack of physical space to work from, e.g. an office, could impact their mental health at work.

Taking steps to combat loneliness at work

How can we bring a sense of community to our homes, our offices, shops, and factory floors? How can we make sure that everyone feels like they belong?

Luckily it’s not rocket science or new wisdom – a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

  1. Celebrate and encourage the individuality of your team

We all have different needs and different requirements that help us be the best versions of ourselves at work. This is particularly true for neurodiverse individuals. How might we know what these needs are?

Listen to your team! Encourage communication without a sense of embarrassment or inferiority. The feeling of being valued, and of being listened to, can be very self-empowering. Are there any barriers in place now, that need breaking down to improve communication between team members?

  • Long-term commitment, not just ticking a box

Consultations and conversations to improve the mental health of your team are an ongoing process. Once you’ve started, don’t stop!

Every team member – from senior management to administrators – is equally valuable and should be included. Create achievable goals, ones that everyone can go after, and feel a sense of pride when they’re accomplished.

  • Socialise – come out from behind that computer screen

Get some feedback on what people would like to do and try to involve everyone in the discussions.

Some activities could include:

  • Drinks after work (the standard one, so we’ll move quickly on from this)
  • A trip to a museum or gallery
  • Something recreational – a mini sports day, or a trip to an escape room
  • An online quiz with a roundup meeting/celebration afterwards
  • A volunteering day with a local charity

There’s always something more we can do to help people feel less lonely at work. And the solution often starts with something as simple as an open, honest conversation.