Loneliness at work – what you can do

A while ago I worked for a large UK charity where I shared space with four colleagues in a bright, well-equipped office. There were dozens of others working on my floor. The organisation employed hundreds of people around the country. And yet, I was thoroughly lonely. On paper, the job was perfect, but sharing an office with heads-down introverts where silence reigned and an organisational culture that did little to combat the loneliness I felt (after leaving a vibrant, sociable office where I’d made friends for life) took its toll and I quickly moved on.

Loneliness at work

So what would I have appreciated from my managers and colleagues? How could this situation have been avoided so I could have stayed, enjoyed my work and been able to contribute my very best to the organisation?

Five possible solutions

Here are five suggestions drawn from my experience coaching and training in the not-for-profit sector. None is a single solution for workplace loneliness but surely worth exploring at a time when the problem is getting worse – according to research 4/10 of us say we have no good workplace friend.

  1. A more collaborative culture – I can see now that the competitive culture of the organisation stopped me from building strong and supportive relationships. People took credit for others’ work and failed to acknowledge individuals successes and efforts. It made me mistrustful and unwilling to share my feelings of inadequacy even with some of the nice people in my room. I would have loved a more collaborative atmosphere where colleagues were truly encouraged to work together to solve problems and where there were no failures, publicly called out, only learning opportunities.
  2. Sociable, shared space –  There was a delightful garden to have lunch in but hardly anyone used it. One of the most successful anti-loneliness strategies I see in my work now is shared space for informal gatherings at breaks and lunchtimes. Colleagues from different parts of the business can mingle, sit together to chat or share work ideas. It also has the added benefit of encouraging people to take a break from their screens.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate – a big table in the corner of the office is enough. If I’d had this facility it would have made lunchtimes so much more bearable.
  3. Warm relationships with colleagues avoids lonelinessMore cross-organisational social events – Enforced fun is no-one’s idea of fun but opportunities to socialise in informal events would have been very welcome for a natural extrovert keen to get to know people. ‘Bring and share’ lunchtime talks and workshops such as a morning yoga class, or a regular book club are a good way to bring people together in a sociable, non-threatening way. Events like these also recognise and celebrate people’s skills and talents above and beyond their job descriptions, which is, of course, hugely affirming. There’s no need to bring in leaders from outside – there’ll be a wealth of talent in-house.
  4. Cross-organisational work opportunities – I would really have appreciated the chance to work with other teams across the organisation, for example, by being invited to join a working group or a planning committee for the Christmas party, for instance. I may have found someone I clicked with outside my immediate environment and just that one soulmate might have turned things around for me.
  5. A little more attention – It’s often the small things that make a difference – being included in tea rounds, knowing each other’s birthdays, getting invitations out to lunch, people noticing if you stay at your desk all day long or seem to be down. And this is important, not just for colleagues (who did their best to make me feel included) but for managers, too. All these would surely have given me a better sense of belonging and of being valued and appreciated by the organisation in which I worked.

Over to you 

Does this resonate with you? I’d love to hear about your experiences of being lonely at work. Or how you’ve supported colleagues who are lonely. Please do share by adding your comment below.

What next?  

Looking after colleagues who are experiencing loneliness in the workplace is a vital part of enhancing wellbeing in your organisation. If you need help with getting your wellbeing strategy right give me a call on 0208 772 7808 (or 07958 501427) or drop me a line at katie@be-the-change.org.uk. We’ll arrange a non-obligation chat asap.