3 Reasons Worker Loneliness Is Growing, and the Role Leaders Must Play

Leaders must be ready to address the growing loneliness among their teams.

“Yes, loneliness is a growing concern. Yes, loneliness occurs at work. And yes, it hinders the performance of my team. But it’s a personal problem, not a problem to be addressed at work or by me, a time-crunched leader.”

This is a common response I hear when talking to leaders about addressing loneliness at work. I understand the resistance. I’m also not convinced leaders know the opportunity they are missing if they neglect to address team loneliness.

Just like how it can be tough to find the time to get enough sleep or exercise, we still must prioritize it because it’s important for our long-term physical and mental health. Similarly, tending to your team’s social needs is important for the long-term health of the organization. “I don’t have time for pleasantries,” said the leader whose team is lonely and underperforming.

Now is the time to lean into loneliness. The conversation and concern surrounding workplace loneliness will expand quickly in the coming years. I have started to see just how eager people in organizations are to lean into the topic. When scheduling a recent “lessen loneliness at work” event for one of my clients, my client asked if I could change the name of the initiative. The client was worried many would avoid the training because of the taboo nature surrounding loneliness. I shared the positive results of similar organizations in the same industry, which assured the client to keep the term loneliness. The eventual attendance, receptiveness, and feedback from the audience far exceeded the client’s expectations.

There are many reasons why the topic of workplace loneliness is starting to become more mainstream. The main reasons loneliness will show up with greater prevalence in the future are as follows:

1. Top of mind for Generation Z

Not only is Gen Z the loneliest generation, but 75 percent of Gen Z have left a job because of mental health reasons, compared with 34 percent of other generations. Loneliness at work will become center-stage as Gen Z becomes the fastest-growing generation in the workforce in the next decade. In general, more and more workers are looking to their employers and management for help addressing mental health concerns. In fact, 86 percent of people say it’s important that a company’s culture supports mental health. The stigma around loneliness and mental health is lifting, expect to have more conversations about this in the workplace.

2. Growing remote workforce

Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, 70 percent of employees around the world were working remotely once a week and 53 percent were spending half the week away from the office. Remote working was on the rise and is now a permanent fixture. This means leaders need to be extra vigilant about loneliness because lonely workers are more likely to be remote workers and loneliness is the top struggle for remote workers. Loneliness is also tougher to identify among remote workers because you can’t see changes in routine or personality as easily.

3. Rise of enhanced technology

Cautionary tales like Netflix’s Black Mirror and movies like Her, give us a glimpse into a less-than-ideal future where technology continues to get in the way of our connection with others. As computing power compounds year over year, technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and blockchain will become more viable making it increasingly more enticing to choose convenience over connection. Therefore, we must stand guard to strike the necessary balance between high-tech and high touch.

“Lessen loneliness” is likely not written in your job description. But if it’s not your responsibility as the leader, who will help the individuals on your team? As the health and economic costs of loneliness become more discussed and visible, the government and healthcare system will play an important role in treating or alleviating the problem. But those resources pale in comparison to the opportunity you have as a leader. Someone who is in close, consistent contact with workers and casting a vision, speaking into their lives, and providing an environment where they can be the best version of themselves is in a position to change lives for the better. Your actions have the power to drive positive societal change, impact families, and set the example of the important role organizations play in lessening loneliness.

Fostering healthy social connections is important if organizations are going to function effectively. And the same is true for societies and families. As social connections grow more and more unhealthy, leaders have an opportunity to turn the tide and provide workers with the example and tools to make an impact at work, in their families, and throughout society. For our health, our work, and our future, it’s critical that leaders address loneliness at work.