6 Ways to Tackle Loneliness in the Workplace

By Cathy Cassata

Young woman sits alone while coworkers go out to lunch together

Loneliness and isolation are a top public health concern in the U.S. On May 3, 2023, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA declared loneliness an epidemic.

Murthy pointed out that even before the pandemic, one in two adults in America reported feeling loneliness. He also stated that loneliness increases a person’s risk for mental health conditions and for premature death by more than 60%. Moreover, he compared the mortality impact of being socially disconnected to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

“Human beings are social by nature and are meant to talk with and be around other people,” says Gretchen Moran Marsh, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist.

According to Moran Marsh, the massive effects of loneliness came about when cell phones, social media and gaming became popular and people spent more time online rather than interacting with others. Then, when the pandemic hit, many became comfortable with the fact that they didn’t have to challenge themselves to be around others, she says.

“People really got out of practice socializing with each other, including at work,” she says. “I hear people say that it used to be so easy to go out to lunch with their coworkers but now they feel anxiety about going to lunch, engaging in water cooler small talk or being at in-person meetings again.”

While there are many ways people can individually work on social anxiety and feeling less lonely and isolated, the workplace is one area employers can help foster connection.

Here are 6 strategies to consider:

1. Prioritize Employee Well-Being Company-Wide

According to Laura Putnam, workplace well-being expert, public speaker and author of “Workplace Wellness That Works,” well-being needs to be a company-wide responsibility and priority and should not be the sole responsibility of a company’s human resources department or social committee.

For decades, businesses believed their employees’ well-being was an individual responsibility and placed the onus on them to seek help rather than looking at larger systemic issues in the workplace,” she says. “Today, businesses need to understand that employee well-being is a collective responsibility and requires a holistic approach and support from the CEO down.”

2. Provide Education About Mental Wellness

Offering workshops, seminars and educational resources on mental health can help destigmatize it in the workplace.

“I go into corporations and give mental wellness speeches and people often don’t realize that if they are feeling anxious it can also affect their negative thoughts and can contribute to behavioral issues,” says Moran Marsh.

She suggested that companies bring in mental health experts to explain various mental health conditions, including loneliness. “[It’s helpful to hear] an expert talk about why it’s important to interact, what happened to all of us during the pandemic emotionally and how can we get back on track with strategies.”

3. Encourage Managers to Lead by Example

Managers play a critical role in cultivating a safe and caring workplace environment, says Putnam. The first step, she advises, is for a manager or leader to put the old-school ‘Check your emotions at the door’ mentality to rest.

“To end the stigma around mental health, including discussions about loneliness, managers should be encouraged to speak openly about their own personal challenges,” says Putnam. “When managers do this, it shows compassion and creates a safe place where employees can express themselves freely without fear of judgment.”

She points to Newton Cheng, director of health and productivity innovation at Google, as an example.

“Several months ago, Cheng suffered a mental health setback and took a leave of absence. Rather than being private about it, he shared openly about it with his team,” says Putnam. “In fact, he corrected the euphemistic use of ‘sabbatical’ to refer to his absence, reminding his team members and coworkers that he was taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons.”

Leaders can also model interacting with the people they lead by going out to lunch and planning and participating in work social events like ping pong tournaments, trivia games or group walks.

“This can help get us back to interacting with one another at the workplace and it doesn’t have to be many hours. It can be one hour during lunch every now and then,” says Moran Marsh. “We know that even short sessions of interactions have big effects on people’s feelings of connection.”

4. Create Team-Bonding Opportunities

Establishing a culture of friendship or caring for the well-being of your coworkers is critical, says Putnam.

“Teams can implement rituals, such as a moment of silence or expressions of gratitude, at the start of meetings. These kinds of team care rituals can go a long way in building both friendships as well as psychological safety,” she says.

By coming up with practices that include everyone during work hours, Moran Marsh notes that no one is left out.

“There have been some working-mother populations that have felt very left out when [get-togethers] are held outside of work hours because they have obligations with their kids and kids’ events. This population has come up as having difficulty with loneliness and sadness,” she says.

5. Offer Mental Health Benefits

According to a Gallup poll, 19% of people stated that their mental health is fair or poor, which led to four times more unplanned absences compared to others who report good, very good or excellent mental health. The poll found that in a year, unplanned absences cost about $47.6 billion in lost productivity.

The good news is that employers that support mental health not only help employees, but reap benefits themselves. Employers see a return investment of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment, according to the National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago.

6. Get Back to In-Person Work

While many people appreciate the flexibility that remote work offered, both Moran Marsh and Putnam say that getting back in the office, at least part-time, could help with loneliness.

“The remote population has had a really difficult time. We know it’s totally different having a Zoom meeting than an in-person meeting,” says Moran Marsh. “I know some companies have been trying to have Zoom parties where they play a trivia game to connect. Others hold in-person full- or half-day meetings once a month to try to recharge, but are not sure if that’s enough.”

For people who didn’t prioritize interacting with coworkers before the pandemic, she still thinks they would benefit from in-person work due to opportunities for face-to-face interactions during meetings or even while getting coffee in the company kitchen.

“It’s the nature of human beings — being social with people,” says Moran Marsh. “We know social cultures have better health physically and mentally versus separate cultures.”

Want to help prevent loneliness in your workplace? Let’s have a conversation.

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About the Author

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people. She writes with empathy and accuracy and has a knack for connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way.