Manage Workplace Loneliness During COVID-19

workplace loneliness

By Yvonne Milosevic

Workplace loneliness was already a major problem long before the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine.  As a matter of fact, a recent report from the healthcare company Cigna found that more than half of younger workers (Millennials and Gen Zers) reported feeling isolated at work.

Lonely employees use up twice as many sick days. They also show less commitment and weaker performance, explains Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, who has studied loneliness and workplace productivity.

These issues have become amplified in the coronavirus era. For those who work from home and live alone, the potential for loneliness, anxiety, and depression is even higher, explains Margot Zielinska, an associate client partner and the head of diversity and inclusion for EMEA at Korn Ferry. “Self-isolation can be scary if you don’t have the support network to help,” Zielinska says.

When loneliness emerges as a workplace concern, both employees and employers can take steps to effectively address it.

Connecting Requires Extra Effort Right Now

Loneliness isn’t a trait, Barsade tells CNN Business. It’s more of a motivational state, like hunger. “The same way we get hungry and need to eat, we get lonely and need social contact. We don’t want to be lonely.”

These days, we must plan for social contact. Cigna’s Dr. Doug Nemecek says the key to reducing workplace loneliness during the pandemic is making an effort to connect with coworkers. Also, we need to have conversations about something other than work.

“Have a virtual coffee break with a coworker where you spend time talking about what’s going on in your life. Share any successes and failures and what is going on at home with the family,” he suggests. “Have those meaningful connections so we can continue to take care of our social health.”

workplace loneliness
Photo by Matilda Wormwood from Pexels

Create a Sense of Belonging to Reduce Workplace Loneliness

Now more than ever, managers need to pay attention to their employees’ (and their own) mental health. Before the quarantine, chats at the office watercooler helped break up a monotonous workday. During this surreal moment, both workers and managers need to have regular check-ins and making sure everyone is clicking, Heather Yurovsky, the founder of Shatter & Shine, tells The Muse.

“People forget they need to be around others because it’s the small talk and random fire alarms that keep your days feeling unique and prevent that hamster-wheel feeling. When you work from home, you don’t have that,” Yurovsky says.

Supervisors can counteract the effects of loneliness by fostering a sense of belonging. Increasing one-on-one interactions with remote team members is another way to make a difference. This gesture is critical for keeping employees happy and productive over the next few months. If we can come together now to address workplace loneliness, especially while working from home, we’ll be well-equipped to reduce the impact of isolation once we’re back to work in person again.