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Employees Around the Globe Feel Lonely, Crave a Sense of Belonging

Find ways to connect one-on-one with your workers, colleagues

Two women working on computers in an office.

​Workers are more connected with their workplace and colleagues than ever, yet a large majority of employees across the globe have felt lonely at work, according to consulting firm EY's second annual Belonging Barometer 2.0 report.

EY's survey of more than 5,000 workers in Brazil, China, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. found that 82 percent of respondents indicated they have felt lonely at work. Nearly half of those polled (49 percent) experience loneliness more now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to EY's report.

Loneliness is not a form of depression or a personality trait, according to a U.S.-centric study from The Wharton School of Business and California State University (CSU), No Employee an Island: Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance.

"An employee does not have to be alone to feel lonely," the Wharton/CSU report says, "and lonely employees can be lonely even when interacting frequently with many others if these interactions do not provide lonelier employees with their desired level of closeness.

"Whether employees feel lonely depends on the level of closeness, security and support they seek in their interpersonal relationships. Thus, the same work environment could fulfill the interpersonal needs of some employees while leaving other employees lonely."

In EY's survey, among people with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ, nearly one-third (31 percent) said they feel more isolated at work and less likely to belong because of their country's current political and economic landscape.

Overall, 40 percent of global respondents said a lack of face-to-face interactions with co-workers was a main contributor to their sense of work-related loneliness.

"They're lacking meaningful connections," explained Karyn Twaronite, EY's global vice chair of diversity, equity and inclusiveness. "People are talking about work transactions. What is missing is calling up people saying, 'How are things? Is there anything you need?' 

Co-workers "want to know that you care," she added. "It's not overly complicated."

Among the workers surveyed by EY, 46 percent indicated they are likely to leave a job because of loneliness. This sentiment was particularly strong among members of Generation Z (54 percent) and Millennials (52 percent). Among members of Generation X and Baby Boomers, 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, said they're likely to leave an employer if they felt lonely.

Loneliness also has a big impact on one's health, said Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), in a Harvard Business Review video.

"Loneliness is as impactful on our health," she said, "as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; it's worse than diabetes."

Creating Connectedness

"Relationships are so important to our sense of connection at work; they are the building blocks of any successful organization," said Brent Pearson, founder and CEO at Enboarder, in a press release about its survey results released Oct. 11. Enboarder is an employee communication and workflow platform based in Austin, Texas.

Baby Boomers felt the strongest about the difference a co-worker connection can make (69 percent), followed by members of Generation X (68 percent), Millennials (57 percent) and members of Generation Z (56 percent), Enboarder found. 

"In a time when there is low unemployment and high employee turnover," Pearson said, "it's crucial that organizations create better human connections across their team, inviting engagement and building alignment along every step of the employee experience—from onboarding to learning and development, performance management, career growth, organizational change, and every moment and milestone along the way."

Paying attention to colleagues is really important.

Enboarder found U.S. workers crediting their co-workers—more so than their managers—with helping them feel connected in the workplace. At most, 30 percent of both Millennials and members of Generation Z credited their manager for making the biggest difference in their feeling connected to the workplace. The findings are from an August survey with 1,000 full-time workers based in the U.S. The majority of respondents (69 percent) work in the office full time. 

A slightly higher percentage of EY's global respondents (36 percent) said having a boss asking how they are doing personally and professionally can make them feel less lonely and contribute to belongingness.

The actions of a supervisor "can be as simple as inviting someone outside the core team to join a meeting," Twaronite wrote in a CNBC opinion piece. "I also ask my team members to have virtual coffee or lunch once a week with a new colleague. It's good practice to expand your horizons and can also build new friendships. I do it both inside and outside the EY organization, and it helps."

Other strategies to promote belongingness:

  • Offer employee resource groups (ERGs). "People really value affinity," Twaronite said. While an ERG can be built around gender, sexual orientation and cultural aspects, also consider other topics. Some organizations, for example, have ERGs targeting parents, young professionals and military veterans.
  • Provide specific, real-time feedback to employees. "If you pay attention to my work and I know it  … at least I know if you care if I come to work, you care about me as a person. People still want the one-on-one approach," Twaronite said.
  • Give individuals your full attention when asking how they are doing. "Don't multitask while you're doing it; don't be on your phone. There are some pretty dismissive power tactics [you] can eliminate," Twaronite said. "You absolutely have to be authentic."
  • Give everyone—not just those who are the loudest or for whom English is their first language—a chance to be heard. Keep in mind team members who are in different time zones, so they're not excluded from meetings. Being able to speak out about concerns matters. EY found that 46 percent of global workers overall said they feel a sense of belonging because of being able to freely voice their opinions, even when their opinions differ from others.


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