Signs you're lonely at work
With more and more people doing remote work, loneliness at work is a growing topic. Yet, for many, a sense of belonging in the workplace is an important part of experiencing meaning at work. Our writer Anna Weltner explores some of the less obvious signs of loneliness at work.
Is it possible you are lonely at work and don't know it?
We've established that belonging is a key part of meaningful work. But loneliness at work (the opposite of belonging) is just as important to investigate.
Recent studies show that loneliness is a known problem in the workplace. An overwhelming majority of workers around the world believe their coworkers are lonely, at least some of the time, according to a 2022 survey of 2,000 workers conducted by author Ryan Jenkins for his book on workplace loneliness. In another study of UK workers, one in five reported feeling lonely at work themselves. A recent peer-reviewed study also linked loneliness and absenteeism, suggesting that loneliness has an adverse effect on performance at work.
Yet loneliness is something people often miss when it comes to their own working lives. It may present as heightened stress, lack of motivation, or even interrupted sleep. So how do you know if you are actually lonely in your work? Here are five non-obvious signs.
You persistently feel sleep-deprived. Loneliness has been been shown time and time again to be associated with a reduced quality of sleep in adults. One hypothesis posed in the former study is that the lack of a "secure social environment" may lead to a "heightened vigilance" during sleep.
You often feel like you're getting ill. Lonely people not only have a lower overall sense of wellbeing, but their immune, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems are also compromised, leaving them vulnerable to illnesses and viral infection.
Molehills -> mountains! Lonely people experience "higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing," according to Psychology Today. When you're lonely, you might feel that work is highly stressful even if it normally would be manageable.
You start taking on too many projects. Loneliness and burnout have a kind of reciprocal agreement: the more isolated you feel, the more painful social interactions at work may be. Therefore, you might end up burying yourself in work to avoid these interactions. But of course, the more projects you take on, the more isolated you become.
You start cutting corners. For others, this lack of connection has the opposite effect: "Sloppy work is a key indicator that people are working with a lessened sense of connection to either the team or their work," according to Psychology Today.
Of course, experiencing one or several of these signs doesn't necessarily mean you're lonely at work. But it's worth reflecting on the ways we can exhibit loneliness without realizing it.
Interestingly, the workplace is one environment where the statistics around loneliness are different from those of the population at large. While loneliness in general is often associated with isolated seniors, in the Western workplace it's the youngest people (aged 18-24) who experience it most acutely, according to a 2022 study. These young workers, the study's authors write, "feel invisible at work, have a thwarted sense of belonging to their employing organisation, and often experience relational deficiencies due to automation and individualization of work practices." The rise of remote work, the precarious nature of the "gig" economy, and the fragmentation of the work day away from the traditional "9 to 5" schedule are all cited as possible causes.
Fortunately, there are positive things individuals and team leaders can do to combat loneliness at work — read our companion piece about building community.
Each month, MeaningSphere deep dives into a key aspect of meaningful work — in February we're looking at belonging at work. Check out and download our free calendar for daily activities to help you explore belonging in your work.
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