How loneliness at work hurts productivity

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Loneliness in the office isn’t an easy topic to navigate.

While there’s been some type of activities where isolation can be beneficial, general loneliness, which has been called an epidemic by medical professionals, could have a negative effect on a worker’s job performance, according to one breakthrough study.

“It’s important to note that loneliness isn’t a personality trait,” Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade said recently. “Research has shown that it’s distinct from things like being depressed or lacking social skills. Loneliness is situational: it happens when an individual perceives that their social needs aren’t being met in a particular environment.”

Barsade and California State University Professor Hakan Ozcelik recently dived into what type of effect office loneliness has on workers finding loneliness made workers less effective at work. Their findings published in the Academy of Management Journal discovered there were two main factors for why loneliness in the office can be detrimental to job performance.

For the study, the pair researched 672 employees and supervisors at both public and private companies across multiple job functions, from truck drivers and police officers to project managers and administrative assistants around the US.

They discovered that there were two main factors for why loneliness can be detrimental to job performance.

One is the loneliest number

The first mechanism was workers felt alienated, which made them feel less committed to their place of work compared to others who weren’t isolated. This meant that workers weren’t trying as hard which meant their performance paid for it.

The second factor dealt with how coworkers interacted with the employee who was experiencing loneliness. Workers, according to researchers, viewed colleagues “as distant, less approachable” compared to those who weren’t isolated. What this created was a disconnect between the employee experiencing loneliness and other workers, which created a gap in the workplace that could affect overall job performance.

This bridge between lonely workers and their colleagues likely is there because of how loneliness is perceived as contagious, according to Ozcelik.

“Other people’s loneliness can easily become our own because it’s relational,” Ozcelik said in an interview. “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.”

How should companies deal with loneliness

Ultimately, it’s up to managers to step up and change an office’s culture.

While company leaders might think that someone’s loneliness is their problem, based on the findings of the study it’s also a company’s problem considering it harms workplace production.

“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,” Barsade said.

“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.”