Is Your Workplace Culture Making Your Staff Lonely?

According to Cigna’s recent Loneliness and the Workplace report, over 60% of Americans are suffering from loneliness, a number that’s on the rise.  Just two years ago, 54% of Americans were lonely.

Studies have shown that this affliction of the mind can have disastrous results on our work productivity and physical health.  One study contends that social isolation is worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, while another claims that it is twice as deadly as obesity. Cigna also found that lonely workers miss more work and feel less productive than their coworkers.

Various factors play a role in this scourge of solitude, but one reason could be how we work.  According to Cigna, insufficient work hours, poor relationships with coworkers, and lack of work-life balance can all contribute to workplace loneliness. In addition, things like office structure and communication methods can have a huge impact on social interactions. It’s been claimed that open offices, increased remote work, and the prevalence of virtual communication methods (email, Slack, Trello, Zoom, and Skype, to name a few) can cause an employee to feel isolated, even when working with hundreds of other people. The irony is that open office spaces and virtual communication were invented as a means of improving communication and collaboration.

Harvard Business School contends that old-fashioned cubicles are often a better choice for businesses than modern office architecture. In one study, researchers found that employees who worked in a “walled” space spent nearly six hours a day communicating face to face with their coworkers, while those in an “open” space only did not even spend two hours collaborating in person. Furthermore, the “open” space employees sent 56% more emails and nearly 70% more instant messages.

Though these findings initially seem odd, it’s been hypothesized that this phenomenon is due to the boundaries that are offered to employees working in closed-off spaces. They can choose whether they would like to collaborate or work independently at any given moment rather than being constantly exposed to their coworkers. Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, claims that the ideal office layout is one that allows employees to move between private and shared spaces.

With regards to virtual communication and social media, reducing face to face interactions isn’t the only way these platforms are contributing to worker loneliness. The fact that nearly everyone is expected to be online at all times creates anxiety outside of work. Employees feel on-the-clock even when they’re technically not, which can eat into their quality time with friends and family. Over 7 in 10 Americans polled admitted to regularly checking their work emails after 6 PM. Means of work-related virtual communication can diminish face to face interaction at both work and at home, creating a recipe for loneliness crisis.

Office loneliness not only impacts personal health, but can have huge effects on a company’s bottom line. Cigna estimates that isolated employees are up to five times more likely than their coworkers to miss work due to stress and twice as likely to consider switching jobs. Furthermore, lonely workers often feel unmotivated, unsuccessful, and less committed to their organization, which can lead to a drop in productivity.

So, what can your company do to make its employees less lonely?

1. Revamp your office space

If your office is one of the many that has opted for an open floor plan, consider reorganizing your space to a more cubicle-like format. If this isn’t possible, brainstorm other ways to give your employees more privacy, like extra space between desks or small desk dividers.

2. Distinguish between home and work time

A great way to prevent loneliness outside of work is to clearly distinguish between free time and work time. Make it clear to employees that they are not expected to answer work emails after they’ve gone home. To avoid tempting them, do not send them emails after they’ve left the office, and encourage others to do the same. Instead, make a note to talk to that employee tomorrow, or save your email as a draft to shoot off the next morning.

3. Offer more opportunities for face to face interactions

Arguably the best way to reduce employee loneliness is to offer more opportunities for in-person interactions. For example, at Criteria we foster relationships through team building activities, after-work drinks, group volunteering, book clubs, holiday parties, and other office outings. A pet-friendly office policy can also combat loneliness, as pets are an excellent ice-breaker that can lead to meaningful connection and conversation.

The loneliness crisis isn’t one to be taken lightly. In addition to its detrimental effects on personal well-being, studies show that happy, engaged employees help their companies be 20% more productive than their unhappy competitors. Prioritize work-life balance, provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions, and reassess your office layout not only for the sake of your employees, but the sake of your organization as a whole.