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How to deal with loneliness in the workplace

One of the key problems of our time is loneliness. During the past few decades, we have moved increasingly towards a society that is driven by technology and has become increasingly polarised. With a lot of interactions taking place online and less off-line - sped up by the Covid pandemic - people can get estranged at work from their peers. We asked Shulamit to review a book she read called ‘The Lonely Century’ by Noreena Hertz, an activist and economist, who dives into how the 21st century has become the loneliest century yet in her book.

About the book

According to the research conducted by Hertz, one of the places that people feel exceptionally lonely is at work. Being lonely can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health, and when not addressed by the employer it can manifest itself in dissatisfaction.

She notes that loneliness in the workplace can lead to a sense of alienation and disconnect from work and from colleagues. This can then lead to a lower level of productivity and efficiency. In fact, not working at the office and ever-increasing email traffic within an organisation itself, have created unsatisfactory working conditions, which include discriminatory messages or disregard for climate-friendly options. Employees have become more closed off and self-focused, leading to lack of loyalty towards the employer.

Addressing and changing the culture

Addressing and changing a culture at work, whether it's about communicating within the office or setting up a new diversity plan together with colleagues, can be considered uncomfortable and even become a kind of workplace activism. With the immense impact of remote working, exacerbated by COVID-19's lockdowns and uncertainty, working cultures have been impacted and shifts have taken place. People have onboarded without ever having seen their colleagues and remote working in some instances has become the norm for companies. A sense of loneliness is logical, but how can we deal with this?

Hertz advocates for multiple ways of workplace action to feel less lonely while working. A small way to start connecting again in the workplace and maybe to find out what you and your colleagues have in common, is simply by having lunch together. Having lunch with your peers, instead of eating lunch at your desk (or at home with your partner), creates a sense of community. By installing a formal lunchbreak, your workplace shows that taking a break is encouraged and recognises breaks and informal interaction as basic needs.

Furthermore, teams that talk to each other outside of official meetings have a higher productivity rate, leading to a direct business benefit. ‘The Lonely Century’ offers more options to decrease loneliness such as creating space for employee-initiated change, the perfect remote-working balance, new work-life balance regulations and much more.

When employees do feel valued, safe, and in connection with others, there is a larger chance of job satisfaction and - for you managers who were doubting the business side of focussing on connection - studies have shown that productivity goes up almost immediately when people feel part of something bigger.

how to reconnect

Loneliness is an epidemic and there are many causes that we simple can't address here. But from a workplace perspective, one of the ways to confront it at work is to engage in collective action for a common cause. Think of the instalment of the five-day work week, or getting paid vacation time. All of these changes came into force through people coming together at work, with conversation and connection starting perhaps at the coffee corner or over lunch.

While Covid has sped up creating a society that works remotely and has encouraged employers to trust their employees even when they aren't at the office, it has also taken away valuable time to connect on matters unrelated to work. The things that make us human. We encourage you to make sure these moments are reinstated!

Other causes and aspects of what is adding to a sense of loneliness in our societies - like our urban planning, COVID-19 and political extremism - come into view in ‘The Lonely Century, A Call to Reconnect’. A good read for everyone going back to work and wondering how to pick up the good things we have missed by being locked down and distant.

Author: Shulamit Löwensteyn (21) lives in Amsterdam, is a freelance copywriter and fervent feminist


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