Workplace Loneliness Has Broad Implications for Mental Health

The connections that bind a workforce have frayed in recent years

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 13, 2023

Feeling lonely at your job? Others have been, too, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of remote work. However, the "pandemic of loneliness" appears to have peaked in 2020, according to new SHRM research.

That doesn't mean the problem has disappeared, though. More than one-third—38 percent—of all workers surveyed say they are lonely on the job at least monthly, according to the SHRM report released June 13 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023. Loneliness is a problem that should still be addressed, particularly among certain age groups.

Slightly more than half of working Americans said the loneliness they feel at work was about the same in 2022 as it was in 2019; 22 percent said they feel lonely less often now.

"Importantly, there are no significant differences in reports of loneliness between onsite versus remote workforces," according to the authors of the SHRM Research report, Loneliness and the Power of Casual Collisions.

SHRM data shows "clear generational patterns," as a higher percentage of Millennials and members of Generation Z reported feeling lonely at least weekly compared to workers from older generations. Among Generation Z, the oldest of whom are 26, 24 percent said they were lonely at work on at least a weekly basis versus 17 percent of Millennials and 13 percent of all workers surveyed.

Workplace interactions may have "heightened importance" for workers in their 20s and 30s, according to SHRM.

"Employees in their 20s and early 30s seem more vulnerable to stress from balancing their work and personal lives and have more difficulty finding energy for leisure pursuits," Annemarie Schaefer, vice president of SHRM Research, wrote in the report.

"Loneliness isn't about a people deficit, it's about a connection deficit," she told SHRM Online. The report notes that for workers in their 20s and early 30s, "workplace interactions may carry heightened importance." 

Among Millennial and Generation Z workers, 47 percent indicated that spontaneous interactions at work have become more important for the progression of their careers, compared to 21 percent of all workers. Also, there is a clear relationship, according to the report, between casual interactions at the workplace and employee mental health. U.S. workers who say their mental health is better now than in 2019 are also more than three times as likely to say they participate in more casual interactions now.

[Looking to encourage connectedness? Check out What Employers Can Do to Lessen Loneliness.]

Impact of Loneliness

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted the impact that feeling lonely can have on people's well-being. 

"Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health," he said in his report, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, released in early May.

For example, loneliness is associated with a greater risk of dementia (50 percent), stroke (32 percent), cardiovascular disease (29 percent) and premature death (26 percent), Murthy said.

A study published in 2022 in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance found that stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs U.S. employers an estimated $154 billion annually in the U.S.

"Loneliness is an interesting dilemma," said Laura Putnam, a workplace well-being expert and CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Motion Infusion.

"We can feel lonely even when we are [around] others," she noted. "If we look at what are the key indicators of feeling socially connected, we feel a sense of safety and security, we feel we have opportunities for learning and growth, we feel emotional closeness … we have a shared experience," and there is a feeling of having someone you can confide in and whom you can turn to for help.

She pointed to various factors contributing to loneliness.

"We change jobs more frequently," or are geographically separated from co-workers, sometimes in far-flung locales, Putnam said. A decline in religious affiliations, which were a source of social connection, has contributed to loneliness in general, she added. "Now we have to create new centers for social cohesion, and as of now we haven't replaced those institutions of connection."

She believes technology has changed how people relate to each other, noting that employees typically don't interact with colleagues before a virtual meeting and disappear from view when the virtual meeting ends.

However, SHRM's findings suggest that easy-to-use technology can help forge connections, especially among remote and hybrid workers. It found:

  • 75 percent of workers have used technology, such as video conferencing and instant messaging, to collaborate and connect with co-workers.
  • 82 percent said their experience was positive.
  • 50 percent of workers said they use tools such as Slack or Teams channels more often than they did pre-pandemic.

Although remote workers are "significantly more likely" than those working onsite to report that their isolation from co-workers has increased, (35 percent and 24 percent, respectively), they do not feel more disconnected from colleagues, nor do they feel excluded from important work conversations. Remote and hybrid workers were also much more likely than their onsite counterparts to indicate they enjoy video meetings.

"Importantly, there are no significant differences in reports of loneliness between onsite versus remote workforces," Schaefer writes in the report.

SHRM's findings are based on surveys conducted in November and December 2022 with 1,073 working Americans and 1,357 HR professionals who had been with their current employer at least three years. An additional 407 Millennials and members of Generation Z who had been with their current employer at least three years were surveyed separately to uncover generational differences.

Other SHRM Resources:
Lonely at Work, All Things Work, February 2023
Employees Around the Globe Feel Lonely, Crave a Sense of Belonging, SHRM Online, October 2022
Remote Work, SHRM Resource Hub Page


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