New Perceptyx Research Shines a Light on Loneliness in the Workplace
Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone, casts a long shadow over our understanding of loneliness and social disconnection. Putnam masterfully dissected how a decline in social capital and community engagement began eroding American society towards the end of the 20th century. Fast forward to today, and the workplace has become a microcosm of that larger social phenomenon. Similarly, MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together delves into the irony of connectivity in the digital age, revealing how technology, initially meant to bring us closer, often serves to isolate us more, an observation remarkably applicable to contemporary work settings.
Substantiating and expanding upon these academic findings is the 2023 Surgeon General’s Advisory, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The advisory emphatically states that social connection — or the lack thereof — is a “critical and underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience, and prosperity.” This advisory punctuates its argument with alarming data: the lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death equivalent to the effects of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. In the economic sphere, the advisory quantifies loneliness and isolation’s considerable impact on American employers: an estimated $154 billion annually in stress-related absenteeism. In this context, loneliness is not just a personal crisis but also a public health emergency and a significant economic burden.
In the post-pandemic world of work, loneliness is a term that conjures up vivid mental images, often at odds with the open-floor plans, team-building exercises, and endless Slack channels intended to foster workplace community. But an October 2023 study by Perceptyx of more than 2,100 working adults tells a story that cannot be ignored. While 50% of employees surveyed report experiencing loneliness in their personal lives, only 42% report the same in the workplace. This finding prompts a fundamental question: What makes the work environment less isolating for some, and does this point to a larger role that the workplace can play in societal well-being overall?
Perceptyx’s latest report, Loneliness as an Organizational Crisis: A Persona-Based Approach to Navigating Through the Silence, explores multiple dimensions of loneliness at work, examining its prevalence, contributing factors, and ramifications for both individuals and organizations. Here’s a high-level overview of some of the report’s findings, which you can read in full here.
Who Is Lonely?
With just over 4 in 10 workers experiencing loneliness in the workplace, it may be tempting to paint them all with a broad brush. However some groups are struggling more than others with feelings of isolation, and there are implications to these demographic differences. The data reveals a counterintuitive reality that seems to reinforce the “lonely at the top” phenomenon: senior leaders report higher rates of loneliness than other employees.
Dispositional Demographics: Men are twice as likely as women to report extreme feelings of loneliness in the workplace. Similar to this gender gap, loneliness doesn’t evenly distribute itself across age groups either. Younger employees, specifically those identified as Millennial and Generation Z, also report significantly higher levels of loneliness. This may be attributed to a variety of factors such as less established social circles, a stronger reliance on digital interactions, or even the existential pressures that come with entering the workforce at an economically and politically turbulent time.
Situational Demographics: The difference in loneliness between part-time and full-time workers is negligible, suggesting that the time spent in the workplace has a minimal role in mitigating or exacerbating loneliness. This might be an indicator that it’s not the quantity of social interactions at work that matters, but the quality. A career’s timeline, however, does influence loneliness. New employees feel most isolated during their first six months, often due to the absence of built-in social networks. Interestingly, there’s a discernible dip in loneliness at the 7 to 10-year mark, consistent with the drop in other workplace sentiments that often occurs at this stage of employment.
The Impact of Loneliness on Work and Personal Outcomes
As the Surgeon General revealed, loneliness is a recipe for negative personal outcomes. When asked whether workplace loneliness had an impact on their overall mood outside of work, nearly 7 in 10 employees said it impacted them more days than not. In addition, workplace isolation is related to many factors of overall well-being, including quality of sleep, physical pain, and the adoption of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive eating, smoking, or drinking. Workers who spend their days isolated from others take that loneliness home with them, with 4x as many lonely people noting that on at least 3 days in the past week, stress from work caused them to behave poorly with their friends or family members.
The repercussions of loneliness extend far beyond the emotional sphere; they also have tangible impacts on an organization’s performance, starting with employee retention. A close examination of the data reveals that lonely employees exhibit a pronounced tendency to seek new job opportunities. In the past 30 days, more than 9 in 10 “very lonely” employees engaged in job-seeking behaviors, twice as many as those who aren’t lonely at work.
Whether they are leaving in search of a more connected work environment or to escape the feelings of isolation remains a topic for further investigation. However, one thing is clear: a lonely workforce can lead to a more mobile labor force. For organizations, the implications can be severe. High turnover rates come with a price — financial costs in recruitment and training, disruptions in project timelines, and detrimental impacts on team morale.
Loneliness isn’t just a precursor to job-hopping; it’s a significant barrier to performance as well. The data indicates a strong correlation between feelings of loneliness and negative outcomes in productivity, stress management, and general well-being. The data indicates a strong correlation between feelings of loneliness and negative outcomes in productivity, stress management, and general well-being.
When it comes to productivity, lonely employees tend to display a diminished capacity for focus and commitment to tasks. Somewhat lonely employees are 2.4x as likely to say that they had three or more days out of the last seven where stress made it difficult to be productive at work. For the very lonely, the problem is even worse. Nearly 60% of them — 3.8x as many — had three or more unproductive days in the last week. It seems that the emotional toll of loneliness serves as constant background noise, interfering with cognitive functions crucial for job performance.
Stress management is another area where loneliness takes a heavy toll. Without social support or meaningful interactions at work, lonely employees are left to deal with workplace stressors in isolation, often leading to increased levels of burnout. Employees who are lonely are nearly twice as likely to be physically exhausted and three times as likely to be mentally exhausted after a disconnected day at the office. This heightened stress can create a vicious cycle as its effects — such as irritability or withdrawal — can further alienate lonely employees from their colleagues, deepening their isolation and exacerbating stress levels.
Given the extent of the issues that loneliness exacerbates — both in and out of the workplace — employers would do well to regard loneliness not merely as a personal issue but as an issue for their businesses to tackle.
Perceptyx Can Ensure That All of Your People Are Heard
Regardless of whether you're trying to determine which well-being resources your potentially lonely employees need, or merely want to understand the efficacy of your existing approach to foster belonging and connection in the workplace, Perceptyx’s People Insights Platform delivers listening solutions and data-driven insights to guide your organization’s approach. To learn more, read the full report and schedule a meeting with a member of our team.