Lonely at work? You’re not alone

Learn ways to combat workplace loneliness.
By Matthew Dees

Though some accounting work is inherently solitary, most accountants have likely encountered the motivational boost that comes from working with teammates. Jamie Wallin, CPA, an audit senior at DuPont in the greater Philadelphia area, said she often feels both more supported and more motivated when working with a team or even just one other colleague.

Now, a growing body of social science research strongly suggests the reverse phenomenon may be true: that feeling lonely in the workplace can affect productivity.

A recent survey of 1,624 workers, conducted by business coaching firm BetterUp and reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that lonely workers receive fewer promotions, switch jobs more often, and are more likely to quit in the next six months.

The survey also found the problem is even more common among younger employees, whom organizations are particularly interested in recruiting and retaining: Employees under 30, like Wallin, were 19% more likely to feel lonely at work compared to their older counterparts.

Todd Nordstrom, director of content at The O.C. Tanner Institute and co-author of Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness, said employees who feel isolated can come to resent their jobs.

"The biggest problem is that the employee may have produced marginal work for years because they didn't feel appreciated," Nordstrom said. "People need to feel appreciated — by their boss, and by their peers."

Given the financial and human costs, it's worth considering ways that employees and managers can minimize loneliness in the workplace, both their own and that of others. Here are some practical tips to reduce and prevent loneliness among your colleagues and employees.

What managers can do:

  • Recognize signs of loneliness. It might seem obvious, but the first step is to be aware of signs of loneliness, Nordstrom said. "It's typically not too difficult to spot an employee who might be lonely," he said. "While others may congregate over lunch, certain employees will sit by themselves. It's possible they could just be an introvert, but it's worth looking deeper."  
  • Plan social activities and make sure others feel included. Co-workers and managers should make a point of inviting employees who seem lonely or reserved to engage in social activities, even if it's just an afternoon coffee run, Nordstrom said.
  • Organizing more formal gatherings can be even more effective. Internal auditor Bethany Shah said that made all the difference when she moved from Florida to Washington, D.C., to take a job at Ernst & Young. Shah, who now works for the Transportation Security Administration, was worried she'd feel left out.

    Fortunately, she found that regular social gatherings were part of the work culture. "For example, one of the senior managers that I only supported a few months each year included me in the annual crab feasts she held at her home," Shah said. "She also included EY alumni. Actions like these made EY feel like a warm and welcoming workplace."

    Cultivating this familial atmosphere takes some planning and maybe even stepping out of your comfort zone. (As Wallin pointed out, accountants often tend to be introverted.) But the result of some planned socializing can be a more cohesive work environment — not to mention just a good time.

  • Create opportunities for teammates to collaborate. Andrew Reece, a data scientist for BetterUp, who helped conduct the survey, said its results indicated companies that created a sense of shared purpose, a "we're-in-this-together" mentality, had the most satisfied and productive employees. "It's that unifying element that tracked with the strongest positive scores on retention, performance, etc.," he said.
  • Collaborative assignments can help foster this sense of purpose. Nordstrom suggested assigning more gregarious employees to work on a project with shier ones. And, he said, don't be afraid to talk the collaboration up along the lines of, "Based on your experiences and backgrounds, I think together you'll come up with some great ideas." More so than social gatherings, he said, this gives employees of varying temperaments "a chance where they can get to know about each other in a social aspect" while "leaning on the focus of the project, and the expertise they both bring to the table."

What to do if you're feeling isolated at work

Loneliness at work can be difficult to overcome for those who wrestle with shyness or social anxiety. Nordstrom has four tips for such individuals:

  • Ask questions. "If you want people to show interest in you, show interest in them and their ideas first," he said. "Ask about what they're working on. Ask about things that might reveal an outside passion or hobby."
  • Go beyond small talk. "We mention the weather, a recent news story, and the conversation goes nowhere," he said. He recommended that, instead of thinking about what you will say, "focus on the questions you will ask and the information you can learn."
  • Reach outside of your inner circle. "We often see groups of people and assume we're not welcome in 'the club,'" Nordstrom said. But have the courage to approach them anyway, he suggested. "Ask people who may not have any insight into your work for their perspective on a current struggle," he said. "They might see solutions you've never considered, and they might actually ask to pick your brain about their project."
  • Think about how you could make a difference that your co-workers and team would love. "Can you somehow save them time and energy? Can you brighten their mood or remove an obstacle?" Nordstrom asked. "People will notice that you're trying to help them, and they'll truly appreciate it." 

Wallin said she had success with similar strategies to snap her out of a loneliness funk. "Join the lunch crew, or dish about your current project roadblocks," she suggested. "You never know who might have an idea or a contact who can get you over the hump. You then have made a connection for the future if you run into a similar issue." 

Matthew Dees is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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