Loneliness on the Job: Why No Employee Is an Island

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Wharton's Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik from California State University, Sacramento, discuss their research on workplace loneliness.

The workplace can be a curious environment. Dozens or even hundreds of employees can labor side by side for hours, spending more time with each other than with anyone else, yet they don’t feel connected. New research shows that loneliness isn’t just damaging to mental health; it can also lower job performance. Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik, management professor at California State University, Sacramento, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about their study of loneliness in the workplace and what managers can do to help. Their new paper, which was published in the Academy of Management Journal, is titled, “No Employee an Island: Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance.”

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: There has not been much research on loneliness in the workplace. Why?

Sigal Barsade: It’s really left us mystified because there has been a ton of research looking at loneliness in other domains. That research has found really negative results on mental health, cognitive functioning, physical health, even longevity. People tend to think that if you’re lonely, you’re lonely everywhere. But that’s not true. What research has shown is that you can be lonely in your private life, in your family life, in your romantic life — it depends on the place. Hakan and I were shocked when we saw that all the research had been done in non-worklife; [despite] how much time we spend at work, virtually none had been done at work. We said, “Let’s look into that.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In the paper, you wrote that loneliness has been referred to by experts as an epidemic. That’s interesting.

Hakan Ozcelik: Yes, I find that interesting, too. I find that a bit concerning as a human being, but I’m also excited as a researcher. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May recently announced the creation of a minister of loneliness. After doing extensive research, they realized that a significant portion of the population feels lonely. Now they have a minister of loneliness in the country, which I think is the first in human history.

Knowledge@Wharton: Part of your research looks at how co-workers treat each other, correct?

Barsade: Loneliness is a very subjective feeling, and the word “subjective” is critical here, meaning it’s how I feel about it — whether my emotional or social needs are being met, and feeling badly when they’re not met. The reason “subjective” is so important is that you could have the same two employees in exactly the same environment, but if they have different levels of need for closeness, then one could be lonely and the other could not. A work team isn’t a panacea for it. While it will help in the sense of giving more opportunity for contact, there are many other factors that are going to depend on what people are looking for and what they’re getting back.

“What research has shown is that you can be lonely in your private life, in your family life, in your romantic life — it depends on the place.”–Sigal Barsade

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you define loneliness at work?

Barsade: People sometimes get confused about what is meant by loneliness. It’s things like: Do I have somebody to turn to here? Do I feel like I’m in touch with the people around me? It’s not solitude. A lot of times, people will think, “Does that mean if I’m alone or I’m a virtual worker, I’m automatically lonely?” No, it’s about your desire on that front. Workplaces need to be thinking about what their employees need and go accordingly from that. That’s why we started to do the study, to see if [loneliness] really influences anything. It certainly influences how people feel, and that’s important in its own right. But from a business perspective, from an organizational perspective, is this just the employee’s problem, or is it also the organization’s problem in the sense of performance and outcomes? We looked at it standardized over many occupations and jobs across two types of organizations, so we used manager performance ratings for that. What we found is that resoundingly, it did. Greater workplace loneliness on the part of employees led to lower performance.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this an issue to address at the individual level, or should the company be concerned as well?

Ozcelik: I think both, but definitely on the side of the manager because they are getting the extra salary to take care of the work environment and to make sure that things are running smoothly. Given that people can feel lonely at work but not in another domain indicates there might be something happening in the workplace that makes that employee lonely. There are many different factors at the managerial level that can be taken into account to prevent that. As Sigal mentioned, you can have exactly the same working environment, yet two different employees might respond in very different ways because they might have different levels for loneliness. One of them might be far away from being lonely, and the other one might as well be standing on the cliff.

What we are also finding in our research is that there might be a loop that people get into. Once you start getting that feeling of loneliness, it doesn’t stop there. Once employees start giving signs that they might feel lonely, they also start behaving differently. If managers spot it early on and find a way to bring the employee back in, then I think the problems will be [fewer] than just leaving the employee on their own. It’s the manager’s job, in a way, to take care of them. It’s not the employee’s private business.

Knowledge@Wharton: There is also the aspect of how other employees feel towards that lonely person and whether that has an emotional impact on the work space.

Ozcelik: I think that brings in the contagious aspect of loneliness. Although we didn’t look at it in our study, we know from the social side and neuroscience research that loneliness can be contagious. Other people’s loneliness can easily become our own because it’s relational. Once the relational network gets infected, suddenly you’ve got these employees behaving strangely. In that sense, it’s not an altruistic choice for a manager or a co-worker to help out a lonely employee. It’s almost a managerial need that they need to take care of, a relational need. As a colleague, they need to reach out to an employee who feels lonely.

“Loneliness is almost like a prison. Once you are in there, the paradigm’s totally different.”–Hakan Ozcelik

Barsade: As researchers, we want to understand why greater loneliness leads to lower work performance. The psychology literature has shown this very powerful but very odd result, which is that loneliness, in theory, should be there to signal to us that our needs aren’t being met. It’s a motivational state, not a trait. You’re not dispositionally lonely. You can be chronically lonely, but it’s not something you’re born with. We, as humans, have a need to connect. You would think that if you’re lonely, that’s a signal to connect. In the beginning, it is. If you’re in a new city or a new workplace, it gets you moving.

But what the psychology literature has shown is that once loneliness is an established sentiment — you’ve decided you’re lonely — you actually become less approachable. You don’t listen as well. You become more self-focused. All sorts of things happen that make you less of a desirable interaction partner to other people. We found that was one of the things that explained the lower performance. The co-workers of lonely people found them less approachable. Because of that, they didn’t share things and didn’t get the resources they needed. By the way, the literature showed it’s not that they have lower social skills. Loneliness makes it happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: What sectors of employment did you research for this study?

Barsade: We looked at a public municipality, which was really interesting because we have clerks and truck drivers and managers and engineers and police. We also looked at a private company that was an outsourcer…. We had over 41 different positions there, and 44 in the other one. One of the strengths of the study is that there was no significant difference in the amount of loneliness in the public municipality compared to the private company. There also was no difference in loneliness based on age, sex, education or tenure.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s no pattern to loneliness?

Ozcelik: It’s an emotion, and emotions are functional. If you are early on the road, like you’re a newcomer to a company, it’s great that you feel lonely because that way you take some of the interpersonal risks to reach out to people, to make acquaintances, to make friends. But if you stay lonely for some time and start getting into the psychological processes that are influencing your perception and thinking about how your social world is, then it becomes a cycle. It’s almost like a prison. Once you are in there, the paradigm’s totally different. You are not yourself anymore. It’s kind of a psychological prison that people create. Management should find a way to bail them out as soon as possible because anybody can get lonely at any time. It’s a very powerful situation to be in. With the help of other people, those distorted perceptions can be fixed pretty easily with communication, with some relationship building. But if lonely employees are left to their own devices for some time, things might get even worse.

Barsade:  My colleague Mandy O’Neill (management professor, George Mason University) and I have done some work in emotional culture — the norms around what emotions you’re allowed to express at work and what you’re better off suppressing. We looked at the emotional culture of the teams and found that in emotional cultures of companionate love [that include] care, compassion and tenderness, even lonely employees were more likely to be perceived as approachable and committed to the organization — which was the other explanatory variable about why performance went down.

We also looked at an emotional culture of anger. Not surprisingly, anger amped up the relationship between loneliness and lack of approachability. If you think about, lonely people are very sensitive to social rejection and social cues. Anything that a manager can do in terms of creating a culture that sends out cues that are supportive is helpful.

“Greater workplace loneliness on the part of employees led to lower performance.”–Sigal Barsade

We also looked to see whether it’s better to be surrounded by other lonely people. If you’re lonely and the people around you are lonely, then you can [all] get together. That was totally not the case. The lonelier the co-workers were, the worse the approachability behavior. So, all these lonely people are just bouncing off each other. We’re not the first to find that. There’s other research showing that if you just put lonely people together and tell them to talk to each other, it doesn’t work.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned the role that the manager plays in mitigating workplace loneliness. But the manager is one piece to the entire company. Should this effort go all the way up to the C-suite?

Barsade: I love your question because as a scholar who also studies culture in general, you’re spot on. Clearly, you’re going to be in a much more powerful position if the company as a whole is taking its emotional culture seriously, as well as some aspects of cognitive culture, like having a culture of respect. But the reason emotional culture matters so much in this case is because loneliness is an emotional state. Many companies are only starting now to realize that this type of culture matters.

Knowledge@Wharton: Recognizing and addressing loneliness is one way companies can better understand their employees. It’s an investment in their human capital.

Ozcelik:  I think employees have an increasing level of expectations from their organization simply because our professions make up a huge component of our identity. We are not doing our jobs just for a paycheck; we want to be a part of the group. We want to be respected. We want to feel that we are having a good quality of life. I think this is getting more profound with the new generation. They might be more relationship-oriented than we are, so it’s important for companies to take that into account. They need to create that relational environment and provide opportunities for employees to build relationships.

One thing that we need to be careful about, though, is if these attempts to help reduce loneliness at organizations stay at the surface level or at an artificial level. [Ideas like] “Let’s have more social parties. Let’s bring people together so that they will bond,” would definitely be a problem for lonely people because they are not connected to begin with. You go to a Christmas party. Everybody is having fun, and you are sitting there and feeling that you are not part of the group. You might actually feel even lonelier. It’s important to focus on relationship-building rather than increasing the interaction. If somebody is lonely, more interaction might create even more pain, which is more challenging. Solutions should be a lot smarter than just having more socials or company picnics on the weekends. They should be more relational, where two human beings can get together and relate so they start bonding.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can we recognize loneliness in our co-workers and step up to help?

Barsade: In our study, we showed we could recognize it because we had co-workers rate the loneliness of the people around them. It was statistically significant. It’s not perfect, but we can absolutely see it.

The second part is, are they going to do anything about it? If we go back to the fact that the lonely person is often behaving in a less approachable way, they’re not encouraging people to go towards them. On the one hand, that’s kind of a pushing off. On the other hand, if you have this culture of love that reaches out to people, that’s a pushing in. Again, that’s where management has a little bit more control in this situation. I don’t think we should cede all this to management by any means. Individually, we can have empathy and we can reach out. Individuals can say, “Hey, I’m going to ask this person to go to lunch.” When you see somebody who’s lonely at work, it is really painful. Separate from the fact that it’s going to influence work performance, it’s a painful state and something you want to help your co-workers with.

Knowledge@Wharton: Hakan, what are your thoughts?

“We are not doing our jobs just for a paycheck; we want to be a part of the group.”–Hakan Ozcelik

Ozcelik: I think managers need to keep an eye on the critical incidents because sometimes things change, and then employees might start changing their perceptions. If they are prone to loneliness, they might start over-reading the situation. For instance, somebody doesn’t get a promotion. One employee might see that as a performance problem or a matter of contingency, whereas another employee who’s prone to loneliness might see that as “the whole organization is turning on me.” The manager should make it clear to that employee that it is what it is, and that they should not be really worrying and over-reading the situation.

Then there’s change in an organization, especially [regarding] the in-group and out-group. Leaders in the in-group usually feel connected and supported. But what happens when the leader leaves? Those employees will be expecting a new type of relationship. If they don’t find what they had in the past, they might start thinking, “No one likes me anymore. My organization is against me.”

Whenever there are changes, it’s important to fine tune the perceptions of the employees in case they have a tendency to feel lonely.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can companies apply your research?

Barsade: The message from an organizational perspective to managers and leaders is that loneliness is not just an individual thing. It is something that impacts the bottom line in organizations, and you need to pay attention to it. For individual employees, I think the bottom-line message is if you find yourself in a lonely situation, that is something really worth trying to address and deal with. The thing about workplaces is that unlike social life or other [contexts], we didn’t get to choose the people around us. Sometimes there’s just not going to be a fit, so you may find that maybe you just don’t want to be there. Maybe another team would be better. There are different ways to go about addressing it. Obviously, we don’t want people just leaving their work because that wouldn’t be very efficient.

Ozcelik: Every little part we are doing in organizations is relational. Even with very specific tasks, we eventually talk with someone, we work with someone, we think with someone. Once the relations get infected, it will start influencing everything in the organization.

The new generation of organizations is creating new environments for employees, which might be a good thing but at the same time might be challenging in that if you are working in a formal organization where everybody is wearing suits and ties and roles are so clear, there’s not much room to get close. People are just acting their roles, so expectations might be lower. But if people are attempting work in environments where we expect them to genuinely connect and they cannot, loneliness might really become a problem. It’s important to take that into account by changing the cultures and structures of companies.

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