Loneliness At Work – A Real Phenomenon…by Liz Watt

A recent conversation with someone i am coaching really made me stop and think.  This was a  successful, highly articulate individual whose career is in the ascent,  who will no doubt achieve their career ambitions, and on the face of it has everything going for them.  So far so good.  And yet one of the biggest issues this individual experiences is feeling lonely at work. Not in the sense of having no friends, or no one to go to lunch with, but in the sense of the lack of a trusted group to turn to discuss concerns, gripes, worries – professional or personal.  The mantra this person has therefore adopted is to plough their own furrow, keep their own counsel, not get too close to others, not to be open and honest, for fear of letting their guard down  in a way that might be detrimental to their career.

Shocking – yes. Understandable – regrettably,  yes.  The competition and culture endemic in many organisations means that quite often there isn’t a great support network in place and the ‘tone from the top’ doesn’t foster open, honest and collaborative working relationships.

Is this phenomenon unique to women as they become more senior and quite often have a diminishing peer group? I don’t think so – there are many men out there who have similar experiences, especially as they climb the career ladder, become more senior and therefore feel they have to be more circumspect about who they share issues and concerns with.  However,  in my experience many men working in large organisations have a better network than their female colleagues and are more comfortable at in tapping into this for help and support.

Women on the other hand quite often feel incredibly isolated, lacking in a peer group, not a part of the ‘old boys club’ and with few, if any, role models.

Is this important? After all, some people are perfectly fine keeping themselves to themselves and don’t feel the need to make friends at work.  Various studies say that it is important.  Research conducted by California State University and  Wharton School of Business found that ‘an employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organization’ leading to ‘reduced effective commitment’.   One of the conclusions reached is pretty uncompromising : ‘…management should not treat loneliness as a private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees who experience this emotion; but rather should consider it as an organizational problem that needs to be addressed both for the employees’ sake and that of the organization.’

So how to tackle this issue? As ever there is no magic wand.  Awareness of the issue at Management and HR level is crucial in fostering a culture where employees feel included and that they have a voice. Encouraging  and promoting initiatives that counter potential isolation and foster an inclusive culture are important strategies that will filter down through an organisation. Worth considering:

  • Networking groups – either internal or external. If there isn’t one that fits your background or level of experience, consider setting one up.  Having a strong network is seen to be one of the most powerful tools in your business armoury and it is never too early to start developing this. A fantastic way to encourage a sense of belonging.
  • Mentoring : Having a strong mentoring culture, especially across departments and levels, fosters a sense of communication and belonging within an  organization. Consider upward mentoring schemes as well as the more traditional ‘top down’ initiatives
  • Social events – no one likes to feel obliged to attend events, especially if they are after work or just involve beers in the pub on a Friday night.  However there are plenty of other possibilities, from lunchtime exercise classes, to organising theatre trips, to a workplace book group, cross-department learning groups  – there are plenty of other ideas! The point is to get people together who might not otherwise meet or communicate.
  • Speak to people! Technology is great, but it can foster isolation too. So consider getting off your chair and actually talking to your colleagues rather than e-mailing them, or worse – sending a text or WhatsApp!
  • Show appreciation. People who feel appreciated are far more likely to buy into the business and stay with it.  On a business wide level, and a local departmental level, showing appreciation tells individuals that you recognise their value, they are important to the business and they are not alone.

If any of the issues discussed here resonate with you and you’d like to discuss how you might address them,  I would love to hear from you: bltcoaching1@gmail.com


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