We are living in a landscape of loneliness. We have the world’s first Loneliness Minister, Tracey Crouch, and a survey by the Jo Cox Commission in 2017 revealed that nine million people in the UK are affected by it. Loneliness is not only bad for our minds: it’s bad for our health, too, with research showing that chronic long-term loneliness can be as bad as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and can increase the risk of blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that workplace loneliness is on the rise. It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke: how can you spend all day surrounded by colleagues and still feel alone? But with technology replacing human interaction, heavier workloads (which means less socialising) and the popularity of working from home, it is increasingly the case. A 2014 survey by Relate revealed that 42 per cent of us don’t have a single friend at the office – pretty sobering, considering that British people work some of the longest hours in Europe.
“Despite sitting on a floor with hundreds of other people, work can feel really lonely,” says 31-year-old Sarah, who works for a prestigious advertising agency in central London. “The company is huge but my team is small and we don’t really work together. I’m naturally quite shy too, so it can be hard to speak to start a conversation with someone in another department. I often feel left out and excluded.”
Technology is undoubtedly a huge factor. We send emails or instant messages rather than talk to people and have ‘helpful’ new communication programmes like Slack and Trello, which provide virtual team workspaces to save the inconvenience of having to speak in person. “We’re using things like LinkedIn and Facebook, so we see how people are without having to physically check in with them,” says Rachel Lewis, Director of Affinity Health At Work and an occupational psychologist specialising in wellbeing at work. “We’re getting out of the habit of broaching actual conversations.”
Hot desking is now a big part of our office culture. When you sat in the same place every day you might have had to endure a hypochondriac co-worker complaining about their spouse, but you’d also notice if they were off sick, or if was their birthday; even discussing last night’s telly was a shared moment of connection. Many of us also work part time or flexi hours now, which suits our multi-tasking lives, but it also adds to the stream of workers coming and going at different times. “Even in the workplace we have our headphones in and we’re cut off from people around us,” says chartered psychologist Dr Pauline Rennie-Peyton. “We don’t have ‘work families’ anymore. There’s this sense that nobody knows you and you don’t know other people.”
The modern day workplace has also seen off the pub drink, as people are working longer hours and then rushing off at the end of the day to spend what little time they have left with their families. Rosa does a condensed week, which means longer hours Monday to Thursday to have Fridays off to spend with her son.
“When I’m there now I’m just ‘head down’. I never have time to go for lunch with people or pop out for an impromptu drink. People have stopped asking me now and I do feel like I’m missing out. Work used to be much more sociable.”
The increase in people working from home is also contributing to this isolation. “It’s possible to spend weeks working in your pyjamas not seeing anyone,” says chartered psychologist Dr Pauline Rennie-Peyton. “Emails and texts are not as personable,” she adds. “We’ve become cut off from the tribe.”
I’ve experienced this first-hand. My freelancer lifestyle might be the envy of office-bound friends, but I had a big wake-up call last summer, when I went into my local coffee shop and realised the person behind the counter was the first human being I’d physically spoken to in three days (I also live by myself).
Because I was always busy emailing and messaging, or spending my downtime on social media or scrolling through news sites, I had tricked myself into thinking I was getting the right amount of social interaction. That moment made me realise that, despite having a supportive family and a big circle of friends, I’d actually become really lonely on a daily basis. Which is a horrible feeling, no matter how many Whatsapp groups you’re in.
It’s probably no coincidence that the millennial generation, for whom technology accounts for an increasing percentage of their interaction, are reporting high levels of anxiety.
This doesn’t mean you have to make everyone at work your best mate. A study by the research of the University of Columbia showed that people who engaged in pro-social behaviour with ‘social ‘weak ties’ in their lives,i.e. co-workers they didn’t know that well, or people in their lunchtime fitness class, reported less loneliness and a higher level of happiness than people who avoided unnecessary conversation.
What can companies do to combat loneliness? “Have more networks and more working in collaborative teams,” Rachel advises. “Focus on the importance of social conversations as work gold. If the people around us don’t know what’s going on in our lives, how are we going to be expected to be managed appropriately and to have better options and feel cared for?”
But it’s also down to the individual. “If you want to be part of that tribe or organisation, you have to contribute to it,” says Pauline Rennie-Peyton. “Don’t wait to be asked to lunch, ask someone out to lunch. Offer to make others a cup of tea when you make your own. Even taking in a bag of sweets or biscuits to share round means more people will talk to you. Sometimes we need to give in order for people to open up to us.”
Loneliness at work can feel stressful and overwhelming, but the good news is that it can be helped. “It’s about encouraging a workplace of connections,” says Amy Perrin, founder of loneliness charity the Marmalade Trust. “It doesn’t have to be overly complicated or cost companies lots of money. It’s about recognising how to interact with others again and making sure those really important points of social contact are part of our working day.”
Five top tips | To beat loneliness
1 When you meet up with close friends, talk about your feelings not just your jobs or families. Being honest about your life helps people feel closer to you.
2 Plan holidays or birthdays well in advance so that you are never lonely at times when it really matters.
3 Invite out a new person – someone you’ve met in the last month. Take them to a play, film, or out for supper.
4 If you have feelings of loneliness at work, fill your lunch hour with an enjoyable activity: listen to a play on your iPad or start learning a language.
5 Give yourself permission to say no to events where you can’t take a plus one – I finally realised this after an agonising wedding party last summer.
6 Don’t wait for someone to call or email – contact them. If they’re busy it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you. Try again.
The Marmalade Trust is a UK charity that raises awareness of loneliness and helps people to make new friendships. This week they are running Loneliness Awareness Week from 18-22nd June. Find out more at www.marmaladetrust.org; affinityhealthatwork.co.uk; renniepeyton.com