This week is National Inclusion Week (Monday 25 September to 1 October), a week founded by Inclusive Employers that is dedicated to celebrating inclusion and taking action to create inclusive workplaces. 

With more than 1 in 10 of us experiencing loneliness at work often or always, fostering a sense of belonging and connection is an essential part of building a truly inclusive workplace. 

What is workplace loneliness? 

Loneliness at work has been defined as “the perceived relational deficiency in the workplace” (Wright and Silard, 2021) which at its core can make us feel disconnected from our colleagues, or feel that our contributions are not valued. 

Although loneliness at work can happen to anyone, the Loneliness at Work report for the APPG on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities revealed that there are inequalities which impact those who experience loneliness at work: 

  • Disabled workers and those with long-term health conditions affecting their daily lives are more likely to report general loneliness than those without (24% compared to 9%). 
  • While workers from minoritised ethnic communities do not have significantly higher levels of general loneliness than those who identify as white, they are more likely to feel that they often or always have no one to talk to at work than white workers (13% compared to 9%). 
  • Workers from minoritised ethnic groups are also more likely to feel that their colleagues are like strangers to them (37% compared to 27%) 

When we place these figures in context with the risk factors for loneliness, it helps us to have a much deeper understanding of the drivers of loneliness. Similarly, while people at all stages of their careers can feel lonely, senior managers are twice as likely to be lonely than others. 

Why does addressing loneliness at work matter? 

The effects of workplace loneliness can ripple through an employee’s life, both personally and professionally, and the consequences can be profound. 

We know that good quality and meaningful connections at work are linked with a reduced risk of loneliness, higher wellbeing, greater engagement, and improved performance. However, if a colleague experiences loneliness at work, it can lead to: 

  • Social withdrawal and appearing less approachable to their colleagues.
  • Higher rates of burnout, depression and anxiety.
  • Lower overall life satisfaction, work engagement and productivity.
  • Greater absenteeism and staff turnover. 

Not only can this be a distressing experience for employees, and affect their mental and physical health, it can also have wider knock-on effects on the organisation due to loss of productivity. 

When we are not well connected at work, it can make us less resilient to challenges and it becomes harder to build the kind of trust that is needed for high-performing teams. Research from the Co-Op and New Economics Foundation found that loneliness at work costs employers £2.5 billion a year in the UK alone. 

What factors influence workplace loneliness? 

Loneliness at work is a complex issue that can be influenced by a combination of factors. There is not a simple relationship between small or large employers, or people working remotely versus those who work on site. Most people whose working patterns changed after the pandemic thought they were positive for their relationships. What does make a difference is:  

  • Organisational culture: Organisations that cultivate a positive culture and actively support positive relationships among employees tend to promote greater wellbeing and reduce loneliness. 
  • Management and leadership styles: The qualities and leadership styles of managers can have a significant impact on loneliness levels. Studies have shown that leaders who possess qualities such as a sense of humour, compassion and consideration for others tend to have teams with lower loneliness levels. 
  • Relationships at work: Even when employees have regular contact with colleagues, they can still struggle to develop meaningful and supportive relationships. Employees who feel close to their colleagues and have a sense of support are less likely to experience loneliness. 

How can we address workplace loneliness? 

Addressing loneliness at work requires a proactive and multifaceted approach based on the needs of our organisation and the people working there. Increasing the amount of in-person contact with colleagues is not enough to mitigate the risk of loneliness occurring. 

This means we need to think about the support and opportunities that will foster a greater sense of belonging among colleagues, such as opportunities to work collaboratively with others and make valued contributions, or access to buddy systems and wider peer support networks. 

As National Inclusion Week encourages us to reflect on what it means to be a truly inclusive workplace, find out how the Campaign to End Loneliness can support your organisation to take meaningful action against loneliness via our introductory e-learning module and bespoke workplace training opportunities

We will also be releasing a workplace loneliness e-learning module later this year. Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to hear when it is launched.