Companies are starting to realize what workers have long sensed: Loneliness not only impairs one’s mood and health — it can also hurt productivity and profits.
According to researchers who study the issue, the economic damage caused when employees suffer feelings of isolation could soon worsen as offices become increasingly automated and more people work remotely.
The share of American adults who say they're lonely has doubled since the 1980s to 40 percent, per AARP's latest numbers. Though the United States doesn't track the financial effect of disconnected workers, researchers in Britain, which recently appointed a “minister of loneliness,” estimate the penalty to businesses can reach $3.5 billion a year, accounting for higher turnover and heftier health-care burdens.
Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, a psychiatrist and chief innovation officer for BetterUp, a workplace consulting firm in San Francisco, said employers who tackle the issue now — rather than brush it off as a personal matter — will save money in future. “Loneliness is an expensive problem that will affect their bottom line,” she said, “whether they realize it or not.”
Kellerman said she heard from her clients, a roster that includes Fortune 500 companies, that loneliness was a mounting concern. Employees who describe solitary days tend to quit, zone out and take sick time more often than those who feel connected to their colleagues, according to multiple studies.
So, her team crunched data from a survey of about 1,600 workers across the country to better understand the risk by profession. The results, published this month in the Harvard Business Review, alarmed her, she said: Sixty-one percent of the lawyers in her sample ranked “above average” on a loneliness scale from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Other particularly lonely groups were engineers (57 percent), followed by research scientists (55 percent), workers in food preparation and serving (51 percent), and those in education and library services (45 percent).
Some of the jobs, of course, involve plenty of human contact. But employees need more than basic interactions to fight loneliness, Kellerman said. “For a server, it is not an especially nurturing environment to be somewhat on your own, working for tips, fending for yourself,” she said.
Generally, the happiest — and most productive — workers feel like valued team members, Kellerman said.
Cultures of camaraderie, though, are shrinking in some parts of the economy, as robots take on roles that humans once handled and more employees work from home. A recent study from the global consultancy firm McKinsey predicted that demand for office workers in the United States will drop by 20 percent over the next decade because of technological advances. That could mean smaller or more siloed teams.
A Gallup poll last year, meanwhile, found that 43 percent of working Americans said they did some of their job remotely, a four-percentage-point jump from 2012.
However, Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that some people who work with robots or stay at home all day are content. Loneliness is subjective, she said, but employers would still be smart to check in with their workers and stamp out any bothersome isolation.
In a February study, Barsade and co-author Hakan Ozcelik, a business professor at California State University at Sacramento, linked loneliness at work to lackluster job performance. They surveyed 672 workers and 114 supervisors at two organizations and found the employees who reported more feelings of isolation — based on the same UCLA scale that Kellerman’s team used — received, on average, harsher reviews from their bosses.
“When you’re lonely, you start to lose your social skills,” Barsade said. “You overshare or undershare. You’re hypervigilant to social threat. You’re less collaborative.”
The occasional employee lunch won’t ease those tensions, she said. Managers should create an emotionally open culture, where employees feel safe to say what’s on their mind and have opportunities to bond.
Daniel Lukasik, a lawyer in Buffalo and creator of the Web community Lawyers With Depression, said he started a weekly support group for attorneys 10 years ago after realizing he and his colleagues routinely battled the grip of isolation. When he started his career in the 1980s, lawyers would go to libraries to do research and banter with others in the field. Now he can pull up a case on his smartphone.
“What that translates to is: You’re working all the time,” Lukasik said. “You get to the point where you’re too exhausted to socialize.”
Combine long hours with an adversarial culture, and the result can be fierce loneliness, along with deteriorating mental health. (A 2016 study from the American Bar Association found 28 percent of attorneys reported struggling with depression, compared with 6.7 percent of the broader population.)
That leads to burnout, Lukasik said, especially if you’re just in it for the money. “Saying to somebody who is struggling ‘Just deal with it’ is a failing strategy,” he said, “and it’s actually costing firms money.”