Can lonely employees bring your profits down?

January 27, 2022

For business owners, plan administrators, and sponsors

At first glance, some might not see a relationship between employees feeling lonely and how it could negatively affect their business. But whether we’re at home or at work, we have the same needs to feel connected to others. Without that feeling of connection, employees may become disengaged, affecting team morale and your organization’s bottom line.

Psychologists tell us that loneliness is a subjective experience: being alone doesn’t necessarily make an employee lonely and even if someone is frequently interacting with others, they may still experience feelings of loneliness.1

What it means to be lonely at work

“What it really comes down to is the employee as an individual, and whether that particular person’s social needs—things like closeness, security, and support—are being met at work,” said Dr. Georgia Pomaki, who has a PhD in workplace mental health and is Director of Mental Health Best Practices at Manulife. “The same work environment could fulfill the interpersonal needs of one employee and leave another feeling utterly alone.”

According to Manulife’s Wellness Report2, more than half of the employees reported feeling lonely:

  • 51% of employees feel lonely
  • 32% often feel that they lack companionship
  • 31% often feel left out
  • 37% feel isolated from others 

How loneliness impacts employees’ health and performance

Some may find it easy to dismiss employee loneliness as something temporary or unimportant.  But could loneliness actually be the new smoking? Research shows that social solitude and the feeling of loneliness are negatively linked to health and longevity as much as other risk factors such as smoking and being physically inactive.3

Beyond the effects of loneliness on our health, there is an emerging connection between these feelings and employee performance. When people feel lonely at work, they may be less approachable, less committed to their organization, and may perform worse than their less lonely colleagues.1

“People who feel lonely tend to be more self-protective. They may feel insecure, and that can trigger more defensive behaviour,” said Dr. Pomaki. “If an employee doesn’t feel connected to their colleagues or their leader, they’re likely to be more closed-off, and potentially, less likely to go the extra mile for that organization.”

What organizations can do

Remember that people feel connection to others in a wide variety of ways. For some employees, being part of a team meeting fosters connection. For others, it may be through one-on-one meetings with their leader, or simply chatting with their coworkers.

The key is in creating a culture of trust and connection: a place where people feel comfortable interacting with each other and where they feel like others care about them. Forging these types of connections can help keep employees feeling supported, secure, and ultimately, engaged.  

Watch for more ways to connect with your workforce in our employee engagement series. Our next article covers how asking one simple question can help employees feel supported and valued.

Manulife’s Wellness Report has the latest data on employee mental and physical health. Reach out to Manulife if you’d like your organization to participate in the survey. Your results are confidential and can be a powerful tool to help you understand how employees are feeing and where you can help address any issues.  

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