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How Employers Can Help Combat Isolation in the Workplace

Every day, new research seems to emerge about the epidemic of loneliness in our society. Workers report feeling increasingly isolated on the job, which makes loneliness not just a societal issue, but a workplace well-being issue, too. This week’s blog discusses what leads to feelings of isolation in the workplace and steps employers can take to help combat this problem that affects both our mental and physical well-being.

Loneliness was a concern long before the pandemic.

It’s easy to think that loneliness in our society results from the isolation of the recent pandemic. But statistics show that even before 2020, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.1 According to a late 2021 Cigna survey, nearly 61% of American adults still report feeling lonely.2

Loneliness can be attributed to a number of things, including the erosion of community bonds, increased use of social media and technology, and a reduction in face-to-face interactions. It’s important to realize that even though we may interact with people in our daily lives or have close relationships, it’s still possible to feel lonely. That’s because loneliness results from the gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experiences of that connection.3

In a report about this growing problem, U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, discusses how loneliness can significantly impact not only our mental health, but our physical health, too. He has long maintained that a lack of meaningful social connection in our lives can increase the risk of premature death, similar to a daily smoking habit.

The workplace can be a significant source of loneliness and feelings of isolation.

We spend the majority of our waking hours working. So when our relationships and feelings of belonging and inclusion at work don’t match our expectations, it’s quite possible to interact with co-workers all day long and still feel lonely—much like it does with our personal relationships. According to a 2023 study done by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 38% of employees say they’re lonely on the job.

What can contribute to loneliness at work?

  • Feeling like you don’t belong or can’t be your authentic self;
  • Lack of psychological safety, including not being comfortable speaking up or sharing your opinion;
  • Not being properly onboarded or made to feel welcome as a new hire;
  • Remote work—though some studies have pointed out that remote workers do not feel any more isolated or lonely than in-person workers; and
  • Lack of inclusivity—which might be due to discrimination, microaggressions, or biases based on age, gender, race, or other factors.

Generational and demographic differences may also play a role in workplace isolation.

We now have three different generations in the workplace, all with their own unique work preferences and communication styles. This can often lead to misunderstandings and disconnects that heighten feelings of isolation.

Younger workers, many of whom graduated and took their first professional positions during the pandemic, are feeling workplace isolation most acutely. According to a study by Cigna, about 75% of millennial and Gen Z workers feel lonely and isolated at work. This may result from the “heightened importance” of workplace interactions for this age group, as well as the general decline in their mental health. Remote work is also likely a factor.

Older generations who have more professional experience and established connections in the workplace do not feel as great a sense of isolation. But, a survey by EY found that 42% of Gen Xers and 31% of Baby Boomers would still likely leave an employer if they felt lonely.

What happens when employees feel isolated?

Over time, employee isolation can lead to reduced engagement, increased turnover, lower productivity and higher presenteeism/absenteeism in an organization. The converse is also true: research from BetterUp found that feelings of high belonging in organizations were linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. Employees in these organizations were also more likely to recommend their employer to others and receive more promotions.

8 things employers can do to help reduce feelings of isolation in the workplace.

1. Make well-being a priority.

Younger generations increasingly expect employers to provide support for their mental and physical well-being. Mental well-being offerings like access to counseling, meditation, and stress management/resilience programs can help employees cope with feelings of isolation. Providing resources to boost physical health—including exercise and nutrition—can also help to stave off depression that can lead to loneliness.

2. Foster a culture of inclusion and belonging.

According to Dr. Murthy, workplace cultures that promote belonging can serve as a “protective force against bias, discrimination, and exclusion in the workplace.” And, when employees feel valued and seen for who they are as unique human beings, they’re more likely to be engaged, have better mental health, and be more productive.

3. Be intentional about creating team connections.

Managers can help teams feel more connected by fostering open, frequent communication; providing tools for easy collaboration; and making the most of in-person office time. It’s also important to set guidelines around communication, as members of different generations may differ in their expectations. Teambuilding events, joint volunteering and wellness challenges can also bring teams closer together.

 4. Ensure a top-notch onboarding experience. Welcome new employees into the organization with intentional activities designed to create connection. Schedule coffee chats or lunch with a different team member each day during their first week, or send a personal note from a senior leader welcoming them to the organization. The goal is to make the new employee feel like they’ve joined a caring, supportive community from day one.

5. Connect each employee with a mentor.

Mentors help people connect to the organization by serving as a trusted ally. They can be sounding boards, share personal experiences of how they’ve coped with workplace challenges and give sage advice. Mentoring is also a great way to bridge the generational gap.

6. Increase psychological safety.

Create an environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks, speaking up, admitting mistakes, and offering ideas. This kind of environment fosters a sense of belonging and inclusion and can be a powerful force against loneliness.

7. Enlist the support of leadership.

Encourage leaders to build trust with employees by listening to their concerns, candidly explaining business decisions, and modeling authenticity and empathy. Also consider asking leadership to include relationship-building activities as part of employees’ performance objectives.

8. Get to know people on a more personal level.

Our experience with the pandemic taught us that connection is key, and getting to know coworkers on a more personal level is essential to combatting loneliness in the workplace. Schedule time during meetings to find out what’s going on in employees’ lives and include time for non-work connection, too, through social events and community service.

 

Workplace isolation is one of the signs of the broader issue of loneliness we face in society. Employers can help to combat loneliness and isolation by focusing on creating a connected, inclusive workplace that values employees as people and is invested in their well-being. For help creating a healthy workplace, contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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