Flex Work and Loneliness: What Can We Do?
By Madison Hanscom, PhD
Working from home can be a positive opportunity for many individuals. It might come with a shorter commute, less interruptions, more productive work time, and less stress. Despite the huge number of employees who are enjoying working from home, a dark side to flex work for some can be the aspect of loneliness.
What exactly is loneliness? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is “alone”. You might meet someone who is lonely while working on a floor of 100 people. Conversely, you might meet someone else who doesn’t feel lonely at all, but they work alone remotely all day. That is because loneliness is a subjective experience that is related to the quality and meaningfulness of relationships. Thus, one solid relationship is better than 5 shallow ones.
Why does loneliness matter? We should care about loneliness because it is related to negative outcomes. When people feel lonely, there are physical and mental consequences such as depression, generalized anxiety, suicidal ideation, elevated blood pressure, cognitive decline, and lower life expectancy (1,2,3,4). There are also workplace consequences such as decreased job performance and less commitment to the company (5).
If you are a leader or work in Human Resources, there are steps you can take to help prevent loneliness in your workplace.
Take steps to build a positive social climate in your workplace. Research has shown that a climate that supports positive relationships between employees leads to less loneliness and higher productivity (6). This is contrary to the belief that managers should create competitiveness between employees — this is not a practice that supports the wellbeing of workers. Consider how social support can be integrated into daily actions with employees and with HR practices. For instance, onboarding is an extremely important time where people build connections and will either feel a part (or disconnected) from the company. Pay special attention to new employees when it comes to embedding them into the culture.
Although supporting new employees helps to get people off on the right foot and sustain positive social norms, it is also critical to think about existing employees as well. Show you are thinking about them, schedule frequent check-ins, and provide as much recognition as possible (a quick email can go a long way). Consider creating more opportunities for people to connect during the workday. For remote workers, this might include virtual lunches, peer coaching, and quick team building activities. Icebreakers only take 5 minutes at the beginning of meetings and can be a great way to engage workers and get to know one another. These can be structured ( "What is everyone’s favorite pizza topping?" ) or unstructured ( "How was your weekend?" ).
If you are an employee personally experiencing loneliness, there are steps you can take to try and decrease these negative feelings.
Try thinking of ways to integrate more positive interaction into your everyday tasks. For instance, if you need to ask a coworker a question, instead of sending her a text message — ask if she could hop on a 3-minute call. Another idea is to ask a coworker if they want to do a virtual coffee or virtual lunch.
It is also effective to consider how you can support other people and bring more compassion to your workplace. Make it a habit to start asking people about their life. You will quickly learn what people are going through outside of work, and you can check in with them and follow up. When you actively care and show compassion towards others, they are more likely to reciprocate.
It might also be worth it to seek meaningful relationships outside of work. It is possible you just don’t “click” with the people you work with or they are really busy, and you might need to build some outside relationships. This is healthy and useful to have fulfilling relationships outside of work. Consider joining a new group, club, sport, hobby, or download an app where you can meet other like-minded people.
Finally, if your loneliness is extremely overwhelming and pervasive, consider seeking therapy and talk to your doctor. Research has shown great success from certain therapy methods (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy with an emphasis on maladaptive social cognition for example) to help address the problem (7).
At Propulo Consulting, we care about the health and wellbeing of all workers. We partner with you to improve the world of work using the latest insights from research. Our team has the expertise to help you implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.
(1) Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., ... & Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC psychiatry, 17(1), 1-7.
(2) Hawkley, L. C., Thisted, R. A., Masi, C. M., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychology and aging, 25(1), 132.
(3) Tilvis, R. S., Kähönen-Väre, M. H., Jolkkonen, J., Valvanne, J., Pitkala, K. H., & Strandberg, T. E. (2004). Predictors of cognitive decline and mortality of aged people over a 10-year period. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 59(3), M268-M274.
(4) Rico-Uribe, L. A., Caballero, F. F., Martín-María, N., Cabello, M., Ayuso-Mateos, J. L., & Miret, M. (2018). Association of loneliness with all-cause mortality: A meta-analysis. PloS one, 13(1), e0190033.
(5) Ozcelik, H., & Barsade, S. G. (2018). No employee an island: Workplace loneliness and job performance. Academy of Management Journal, 61(6), 2343-2366.
(6) Erdil, O., & Ertosun, Ö. G. (2011). The relationship between social climate and loneliness in the workplace and effects on employee well-being. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 24, 505-525.
(7) Masi, C. M., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219-266.