Lonely workers have a lot of company. Seventy percent of global workers experience loneliness at least monthly, and 52 percent experience it at least weekly, according to my recent research of more than 2,000 global workers.
Not only does loneliness shave 15 years off of a person’s life, but employee productivity, loyalty, collaboration, and engagement decrease when employees feel this way.
Loneliness has been silently and steadily growing for decades. In 1985, half of the workforce indicated that they had a close friend at work. By 2004, less than a third did. The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the issue. As work cycles spin faster, remote work becomes more pronounced, advances in technology continue, and the loneliest generation (Gen Z) floods the workforce, workplace loneliness soon will turn from a simmer to a boil.
Gathering back in the office won’t solve loneliness because loneliness isn’t the absence of people but rather the absence of quality connections. Workers can be surrounded by teammates and still feel isolated and alone. Workplace loneliness is defined by the distress caused by the perceived inadequacy of a quality connection to teammates, leaders, the organization, and work itself. A remote worker who feels connected to their work and team can experience less loneliness than someone who works in an office surrounded by people but lacks quality connections.
Due to the growth and prominence of loneliness, it should be as important to teammates, managers, directors, and CEOs as it is to therapists. Loneliness isn’t shameful. It’s a signal that we need each other. Humanity’s strength has always been in our ability to work together. We build together. We grow together. We thrive together.
Loneliness is increasing—but that means it’s malleable. What increases can also decrease. One way to decrease loneliness is through learning.
Learning starves loneliness.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be angry when you are grateful. If your brain is searching for possibilities, generosity, and value (gratitude), then it’s not searching for what’s unfair, missing, or wrong (anger). Similarly, it’s difficult to be lonely when learning. When our brain is enraptured in learning something new, loneliness is absent.
Learning lessens loneliness by giving hope. Sixty-six percent of professionals feel more successful and confident and less burned out after they’ve spent time learning. Albert Einstein famously said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Learning gives us a sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As a keynote speaker and workplace loneliness author, I have experienced firsthand how learning lifts the human spirit.
Learning lessens loneliness by providing a sense of belonging. If our ancestors who roamed the plains didn’t learn a skill or perspective that was valuable to the collective tribe, then they were at risk of being excluded and isolated. Freeloaders create drag on tribes. Learning provides reassurance to individuals that they can or will contribute value. And it provides reassurance to the tribe that you are improving yourself for the benefit of the group. Modern work teams function this way to this day.
Learning connects people and lessens loneliness. When we come together as a team to learn about each other, a client’s problem, or ways to improve our abilities, we are communicating that we don’t know something or that there is room for improvement, but we can learn, grow, and succeed together. Learning also leads to social connections. When you learn something, you often share what you learned with someone else. We learn to play an instrument to one day share a song with a loved one. We learn a new joke to bring a smile to a friend. We learn how to communicate more effectively to deepen our connection with a spouse. We learn about workplace loneliness to move a team from isolated to all in. After we learn something, we are often eager to share it with the world.
Providing learning experiences via team training, leadership off-sites, or digital courses is an overlooked yet powerful lever to pull to unify a lonely and disconnected team. While the mind feeds, loneliness starves.
Want to learn more? Join me during the ATD 2021 International Conference & Exposition for the session Lessen Loneliness and Boost Belonging Across Generations at Work.