Loneliness, Connectedness, and Employee Engagement

Critics of remote work are quick to point out that working from home will lead to loneliness. It’s easy to correlate loneliness with physical isolation, but that isn’t always the case.
6 min read | by Jennifer Cameron
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Critics of remote work are quick to point out that working from home will lead to loneliness. The intent is clear: affirm the decisions of return-to-office advocates, assuring them that they have the employees’ best interests in mind.

But here’s the rub: employees can also be lonely in the office if they don’t feel connected to their teams and/or communities. It’s easy to correlate loneliness with physical isolation, but that isn’t always the case. 

If employees are lonely, it can impact their physical and mental health — which in turn are tied to employee engagement and work performance. More than ever, companies are considering employee well-being. A 2021 survey found that 68% of senior HR leaders rated employee well-being and mental health as a top priority. 

Companies need to think about fostering employee connectedness, not only to boost engagement and performance, but as part of an ongoing commitment to employee mental health. 

Loneliness Is Tied to Work Performance

Loneliness touches all aspects of a person’s life. Employees might feel connected to colleagues, but lonely in their personal lives, or vice versa. No matter the source, loneliness can have a detrimental impact on people.

Research has found that loneliness heightens mortality risk, on par with smoking fifteen cigarettes per day and being an alcoholic. It also poses the same health risks as obesity. 

Lonely employees take more sick days, and their job performance goes down. Executive functions such as reasoning and decision-making are impacted. And loneliness can impact employees at all levels of an organization. A survey of CEOs found that 61% report feeling lonely and think that loneliness hinders their work performance.

It becomes a cycle: engagement and collaboration with teammates go down, which may lead to further isolation and perpetuate feelings of loneliness. Isolation can lead to feeling “stuck” and employees are unable to process the next step in their roles.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced companies to take a hard look at the impact of loneliness in the workplace. Without question, many people were isolated from their work and social connections due to pandemic-related closures. At the onset of the pandemic, more than half of American adults reported feeling lonelier than usual.

While it previously might have been easy to brush off an employee’s loneliness outside of work as “not an employer’s problem,” the modern workforce leaders recognize the tight integration between work and non-work life.

Take a 360-View of Connections

According to the World Economic Forum: “There is an urgent need for organizations to venture beyond traditional norms and explore creative solutions to support the workforce effectively. This includes developing and adopting a framework that is grounded in compassion, holistic wellness, meaningful interactions, and flexibility.” 

“Creative solutions” extend far beyond hanging out at the physical or virtual water cooler. Companies can’t rely on chance encounters between employees to build meaningful connections, and this approach certainly falls short with the rise in remote work.

A holistic approach to employee connectedness looks beyond the office, particularly in the aftermath of pandemic-related lockdowns. Connections typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Professional Connections such as mentors, coaches, associations, and peers
  • Lifestyle Connections such as friends and hobbies
  • Intimate Connections such as family, spiritual, and partner relationships

These connections are often fluid and vary along a person’s life journey. They’re also often based on situations, timing, and preference. For example, people may have more professional connections when they are knee-deep in their careers than when they are younger adults or nearing retirement. But holistically, people need connections from each category because they serve different needs. 

Work should not be limited to professional connections (though that is certainly a starting point). To take a 360-approach, companies can foster connections among employees based on hobbies or similar interests. This could be as simple as creating Slack channels where people can talk about topics like gaming, long-distance running, or music. It gives an additional opportunity for employees to connect with their colleagues.

The Link Between Social Connection and Engagement

Social bonds create a culture of inclusivity – the feeling that one “belongs” at work. An employee who looks around and thinks, “I don’t fit in here” will become detached. Employees who feel connected to their coworkers are more motivated to perform. An engaged employee “shows up”: physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

Social connection and engagement are intertwined. For employees that have high social connectivity, 60% report being highly engaged. By contrast, for employees that have low social connectivity, only 10% report being highly engaged.

And engagement is tied to tangible results for companies. Disengaged employees cost the U.S. approximately $550 billion per year, according to a study by The Engagement Institute. This is the result of turnover, absenteeism, burnout, and low levels of wellness. Highly engaged teams, by contrast, show 21% greater profitability, a 10% increase in customer ratings, and a 20% increase in sales.

If a company thinks that its only responsibility is professional engagement, the numbers speak for themselves. High social engagement leads to better-engaged employees. Better-engaged employees lead to better work performance

And because each person needs a mix of professional, lifestyle, and intimate connections, companies can’t focus on only one aspect and assume that it will result in high levels of social connection.

Support Connections in Any Work Environment

As the emphasis on employee well-being collides with the increase in the remote employee experience, companies should develop a plan to foster connections. Otherwise, they’ll end up with a workforce that feels disengaged and disconnected. 

Any action plan should look to transform existing policies to reflect a remote-first operating model. We’ve learned that remote work promotes a greater range of working lifestyles, including improved access for people who are neurodivergent, caretakers, and other people who may have been isolated in a traditional office environment. Efforts to increase social connectedness at work should focus on inclusion, whether that’s based on the type of connection (professional, lifestyle, or intimate) or the method of connection (synchronous vs. asynchronous, group size). 

The more ways companies can facilitate connection, the better chance an employee will find a friend, a cohort, or a kindred spirit and say, “I belong here.”

Originally Published by Jennifer Cameron on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 | Updated on Monday, April 15, 2024

We would like to thank Anna Burgess Yang for her contributions to this article. 

, Connection
, Employee Engagement
, Employee Research and Engagement
, The Remote Employee Experience
, Human Resources Today
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