Loneliness is no longer just a symptom of social outcasts. In fact, it's something many of us have felt at certain jobs throughout our careers. Do you remember that company where you just felt lonely, like no one really cared if you were there?
"I feel like I don't have the right to complain," said Anna, a woman I met after speaking at a conference. "It's not like my boss is mean. The people I work with are fine. But, even at lunch everyone is obsessed with his or her phones. They're either texting friends, watching Netflix, or scrolling through Instagram. I'm bored all day. And the only thing I can think about is how I want to have a conversation with another human being."
While many of us were raised to respond to situations like these and shrug it off by saying, "Suck it up. Stop whining. Just do your job," there's something other than just emotions we need to consider when it comes to feeling alone at work--research reveals that loneliness kills your job performance.
Research conducted by California State University and the Wharton School of Business that surveyed 672 employees and their 114 supervisors across 143 work team units found that "an employee's work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organization, as reflected their increased surface acting and reduced affective commitment." And, possibly even more interesting is, "The results also show that co-workers can recognize this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness."
As a leader or even a team member, when we see people who we think might feel lonely our common response is to do the very thing people need the least--just leave them alone. For some reason we assume the loneliness is a personal situation that should be handled outside of the office. But, often, we'd be wrong.
The researchers continued, "...management should not treat work loneliness as a private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees who experience this emotion; but rather should consider it as an organizational problem that needs to be addressed both for the employees' sake and that of the organization."
If you're lonely at work, how should you react?
Don't assume they're not interested in you.
Often people who feel lonely also believe it's because no one is interested in truly knowing them. But that's a dangerous assumption. I've always believed that the most interesting people are, in fact, the most interested people. So, show some interest in them and their ideas. Can I get your perspective or advice on a project? When you show interest in their hobbies, ideas, and work, they'll often show interest in yours.
Reach outside of your department.
There's a possibility that the people you spend your entire day with simply want a break from thinking about their work. So step out of your inner circle and spark conversations with people who might see your world through a different lens. Research from my company, the O.C. Tanner Institute, shows that 72 percent of award winning projects involve employees talking to people in their 'outer circle.' Plus, people who don't live and work in your daily routine might find your work fascinating, as you might find theirs.
Don't check out. Check in.
Often times it feels like the natural response to a stressful or undesirable social situation is to check out and become less noticeable. But this is the time you should ask yourself to look around and see how you could make a difference that your coworkers and team would love. Can you somehow save them time and energy? Can you cheer them on toward their goals by encouraging their effort? Reframe your mindset to pump every ounce of your energy into creating a result that is impossible to overlook.
If you're a team member or leader of someone you think might be feeling lonely, how should you react?
Don't assume it's not work related.
While it's true that employees might have other relationship, health, or emotional stresses that carry into their work-day, don't make the assumption there is nothing you can do. Talk to them and figure out if their distant attitude is work-related. And, if it is, focus only on the areas you might be able to influence. Can you introduce them to new people? Can you inform them of resources or activities that might help?
Look for reasons to show your appreciation.
Global research shows that people who feel appreciated are most likely to produce the best work. Let people know their value to the organization, the culture, the team, and to you.
Feely alone at work is tough. But, don't let it impact your potential...today, tomorrow, or in the future.