Occupational loneliness: When the home office doesn’t work

Our growing sense of aloneness is strongly related to the shift towards working from home and our over-reliance on technology to communicate.

Loneliness can literally hurt and incapacitate us. If you’re feeling its pangs, it’s probably affecting your career. A few strategies can make a world of difference.

By Linda Moon

A lot has been written about loneliness. However, the occupational kind has had scant recognition. 

If you’re feeling isolated at work join the club. 

Forty per cent of Australians surveyed by Reventure in 2019 felt lonely on the job, while those working from home voted professional and social isolation their biggest negative in a McCrindle study.

“Loneliness in the workplace is rarely addressed and [is] often left to the individual to solve themselves,” says Michelle Lim, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University of Technology and scientific chair in Ending Loneliness Together

“Sometimes it’s confused with mental health issues.” 

Recently, the coronavirus pandemic boosted the global growth towards remote work, and helped draw attention to the issue. However, people working in a traditional bricks and mortar office can also feel lonely. 

Loneliness and social isolation are not the same thing, Lim explains. The latter occurs when you have little contact with anyone. The former is a subjective feeling. 

How loneliness at work hurts us 

“Loneliness in employees is associated with lower work affiliation, productivity and creativity,” Lim says. Thus, tackling occupational loneliness should be a key element of career management.

Of those reporting loneliness in the Reventure study, 40 per cent felt less productive. They were also more likely to get sick.

Work-related loneliness plays a major role in burnout for owner-managers of small or medium business enterprises (SMEs) , according to a 2016 study

“Connectedness is an essential ingredient for psychological health,” the researchers write. Among its benefits is buoying our resilience to stress. 

The toll of loneliness on our mental health makes it as hazardous to our health as smoking and other key risks of mortality

Who is at risk?

A 2018 American study by BetterUp found loneliness doesn’t discriminate by salary, race, gender, geographical location and even length of employment. There were exceptions: those who didn’t identify as heterosexual, were recently divorced, or had a small social circle, were more likely to be lonely.

What did predict loneliness most was your level of education, profession, and the sector in which you work. Those with higher levels of education were lonelier than people who had completed an undergraduate degree or high school certificate. Workers in the for-profit industry were less lonely than employees in the government or non-profit sector. 

The loneliest workers were in legal practice, medicine, science, engineering, and civil service. The least lonely worked in social work, sales, and marketing – roles with high levels of interpersonal contact.

Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence and author of Back to Human, says professionals with higher educational backgrounds have fewer peers on their level to connect with, and fewer free hours for socialising due to a business model of billable hours. 

Rediscover being a real human being

Schawbel believes our growing sense of aloneness is strongly related to the shift towards working from home and our over-reliance on technology to communicate. “The more you use these digital devices to connect the more you feel like something’s missing from your life – which is human connection,” he says. 

Highlighting the value of old-fashioned communication, Schawbel found if you work remotely, you’re much less likely to want a long-term career in your company. He says “relationships in the workplace are an anchor to the company”.  

Technology can be a “bridge” or “block” to connection, depending on how you use it, Schawbel says. Video-conferencing tools can help people connect, but will never substitute for real human interaction, he says. 

He recommends keeping simple rules around how you use technology. 

“Know when, where, and how you’re going to use the technology to connect. Match the right medium with the right circumstance. If you are just notifying someone of an upcoming meeting, a text or an email would do, but if you’re about to lay off an employee it has to be done in person or by video. 

“There has to be an emotional element. You can’t really express that in text or people can take it the wrong way. And then, if you’re going back and forth to get a point across, that’s feedback that you should have just picked up the phone in the first place.” 

At meetings, disengage with tech. Give your attention to those physically around you, for example by putting mobile phones in a bucket or basket, he suggests. 

Be a leader, not a follower. “Set the standard, set the expectations,” Schawbel says. He notes, for instance, that some leaders force all employees to use video when making calls.

One of the leaders he interviewed for Back to Human budgets in the cost to fly to meet employees across the world.

“Make time to be with people where they are,” he says. While it might be more work to pick up the phone or travel to meet in person, it’s worth the investment. “You’re more likely to have better, stronger relationships if you do that.” 

Put pressure on yourself to be with your team or meet new people within your organisation. 

“It’s not just good for preventing loneliness, it’s good for getting added work, because relationships lead to all the opportunities that are valuable to you throughout your life,” Schawbel adds. 

Build socialisation into your calendar and maximise every aspect of your day to be social. 

“If it’s not in our calendars it doesn’t exist,” he says. “Block out time to have a phone call with someone during the day.”

The tendency towards work creep can rob us of social contact. It is also associated with burnout, he adds.  

“Seek others in a similar situation within your network, a professional association or Facebook group. Create a support group. You’re in this together. It only takes one action to become less lonely. That’s the good news. All you have to do is reach out.”

Calling loneliness a global epidemic and health crisis, Schawbel says, “we all have a role in preventing loneliness from hurting people’s lives. And we can all make ourselves less lonely”. 

Stay connected while working remotely 

Coco Hou CPA, a tax agent, accountant and managing director of Platinum Accounting and Platinum Professional Training, combats loneliness with a disciplined daily schedule that includes gratitude practices, yoga and connecting to others. 

“You have to make your own cup full,” she says.  

Sydney-based Hou introduced her strategies to her team when they started working remotely under COVID-19 restrictions and productivity dropped a bit.

Every morning employees upload photos of themselves and their work desks to each other using WhatsApp. “They’re in suits and at desks and saying hi to the team,” Hou says. 

After going through emails and sorting tasks, everyone logs into an online meeting on Microsoft Teams to share good news and the three most important tasks of their day. 

“After the meeting we let Microsoft Teams run all day in order to create that virtual office environment,” Hou says. Along with providing a sense of working with colleagues in the same room, they can “virtually” tap another person on the shoulder for a quick, private chat. 

“Shutting down the computer at 5pm is an ideal goal,” says Hou, a single parent. “The biggest problem right now is they don’t know how to draw the line after working hours.”

Hou has introduced virtual office drinks where everyone turns off their email. 

“Don’t browse Facebook in the day either,” she warns. Unproductive work can contribute to longer work hours.

“All the team members are even closer in this epidemic,” Hou says. Caring for others has unexpectedly fed her own social needs. Recently, she chatted on Zoom with a team member who was struggling. 

“I realised we all face different challenges in life. When we exchange stories it actually makes both of us feel empowered and cared for. You don’t feel lonely anymore. You’re not the only person who’s going through this.”


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