Expert: In-person work alone won’t fix loneliness

"I've seen some companies who bring back workers to the office saying, "We care about a collaborative environment," and you look at their values statements and it's all about delivering shareholder value or hitting the bottom line," says Constance Hadley. (Credit: Getty Images)

Businesses that believe the best vaccine for the pandemic is simply returning to in-person work will be disappointed, according to organizational psychologist Constance Hadley.

The surgeon general of the United States has declared loneliness a lethal pandemic, equating it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Hadley studies one environment where a loneliness outbreak seems to be spreading: the workplace.

That COVID-19 worsened loneliness—with working from home and Zoom—is perhaps no surprise. But workplaces could be hothouses of loneliness before the virus forced employees home, according to research by Hadley, a lecturer in management and organization at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

“Remember the definition of loneliness: it’s the feedback from the environment that creates loneliness.”

“Going back to my dissertation at Harvard, I was studying people with emotionally, psychologically hard jobs, like emergency room physicians, social workers, and special education teachers,” she says. “How the heck do you survive without burning out? It was the social support they got from their colleagues at work. That is the unacknowledged grease that keeps a lot of these organizations going.”

When she found many people lacking such collegial support, she turned her attention to loneliness. Others have quantified its economic damage: $154 billion annually “in stress-related absenteeism alone,” according to Cigna.

In his report, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy agreed that pre-COVID trends fostered loneliness, including plunging rates of marriage, childbearing, and churchgoing, with racially, ethnically, economically, and sexually marginalized Americans especially at risk. “Recent surveys,” Murthy wrote, “have found that approximately half of US adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults.”

Hadley discussed her research and what it suggests for combating loneliness—and the best ways of bringing workers back to the office:


Define “workplace loneliness,” as opposed to other forms.


Talking with somebody who is in one of my classes with executives, it dawned on him that he was lonely, but that was not the first thing he labeled it. He came in saying, “I think I may have made a bad career choice.” I hear too, “I just don’t like this company, something about the culture doesn’t suit me.” When I probe a little more, you realize it’s not about the content of the work. There’s something about the interactions these people are having in the course of doing their work. They’re just unsatisfying. That’s what loneliness feels like at first.

My colleague Sarah Wright from the University of Canterbury [in New Zealand] and I are writing the first handbook chapter ever, we think, on work loneliness. We’re describing workplace loneliness as a distressing gap between the level and quality of social interaction that you get while working and what you’re hoping for. It’s a lack of social fulfillment.


You studied this problem before the pandemic. What was causing it back then?


Long-range, we’ve seen a change in society. The [2000] book Bowling Alone raised the alarm about how communities have fragmented. Also, at work, we saw fewer lifetime employment-type careers. People started changing jobs much more frequently. So there was a lot of disconnection, outside and in work, that fostered fragmentation of points of contact and lack of communities of belonging.

Then you throw in social media. A lot of people who’ve grown up in social media worlds, the Gen Zs and millennials, have a false sense of what real connection feels like, and that can come into the workplace as well. Think back to my original research [into stressful jobs]: “Who do you go to when a patient dies?” Do you have that kind of relationship with somebody at work?


How should businesses and employees address workplace loneliness?


There’s an aspect of cultural values and norms that leaders can explicitly set. Are you trying to create an environment where people are expected to care for each other, to become more than just colleagues? I’ve seen some companies who bring back workers to the office saying, “We care about a collaborative environment,” and you look at their values statements and it’s all about delivering shareholder value or hitting the bottom line. Well, you’re not actually encouraging collaboration and pausing to get to know somebody—there’s a disconnect.

Leadership, from the top down to team leader, needs to be trained and rewarded for certain behaviors. Showing a personal interest in their employees, for example—they dedicate time in meetings for getting to know people, or if somebody’s having a crisis, taking the time to pause and address that. It also means constantly reinforcing that sense of shared meaning: each person’s valuable to the mission, making people feel that they’re part of something greater than themselves.

Team design is an important intervention point. A lot of teams are teams in name only; people come in and out and try to get some stuff done. If you set them up right, that might mean a bounded group, so that there aren’t members coming in and out. Everybody can kind of wear the T-shirt—you’re on my team.


Besides leadership, are there other fixes?


I would think about physical structure. How is the office designed if you’re going to bring people back? Is it facilitating small-group interactions? People say, Oh, open offices facilitate cooperation. Research shows that can backfire. Now we have long desks where people are hot desking; there are no barriers physically. For some purposes, that’s really helpful, but what tends to happen is people put on headphones and block each other out, because it’s so noisy, you can’t focus. And it deters people from having conversations; they don’t want to disturb other people. There’s interesting work being done in creating clubhouse-type features: a cozy nook to chat with somebody, or different ways of assigning desks.

[If] the organization’s value system says “we value connection,” HR is the enforcer: are people actually evaluated on that? Are they promoted based on what a good team player they are? Or are stars promoted even if they’re total jerks and nobody wants to work with them? Is there a conscious effort to make sure everyone’s included? We find, no surprise, that often women do the legwork in creating those connections, and they’re often not rewarded. Research talks about “non-promotable tasks.”

Stop telling people to fix their loneliness problem. Leaders tell people, Go out and make some friends. Remember the definition of loneliness: it’s the feedback from the environment that creates loneliness. I can’t control the environment as one person; the organization has to change. I do my part and make extra efforts to reach out to others, but ultimately there are limits to what any one person can do to fix work loneliness.