Despite the abundance of social media apps and virtual platforms to keep us connected, Americans are more lonely than ever before—and that loneliness is creeping into our professional lives.
A 2022 survey from Cigna Health shares that professionals who have a poor relationship with colleagues are 10% lonelier than those who have positive workplace interactions. When survey respondents are asked about balancing their professional and personal lives, those who report having poor work-life balance are almost 7% lonelier than those who have positive work-life balance.
The COVID-19 pandemic played a part in this. Although some professionals were fortunate enough to work from home for safety reasons, social isolation from co-workers and friends contributed to feelings of loneliness. Even as more workers have returned to in-person or hybrid operations this past year, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt.
Feeling disconnected from your colleagues or organization can lead you to feel unmotivated or reluctant to carry out your role. With many people spending at least a third of their lives at work, combating workplace loneliness is essential to improving life satisfaction and staving off burnout.
Build bonds with colleagues
It’s important to have boundaries in the workplace, but being professional doesn’t mean you can’t also be personable. By making an effort to get to know your colleagues outside of their role’s responsibilities, you’ll quickly discover more about the people you spend your days with.
Set aside the first few minutes of a meeting to truly check in with your team. Whether it’s celebrating personal accomplishments from the previous week, sharing highlights from the weekend, or asking about the outcome of a co-worker’s rec league baseball tournament, these casual conversations can bolster bonds among colleagues.
If you’re ready to take your workplace interactions a step further, suggest a day of the week to have lunch with your co-workers. Sharing a meal can fast track relationships and increase familiarity. Make it an occasional potluck to find out everyone’s favorite recipes, or take turns deciding where to pick up takeout.
To create community at work, start small. Checking in about personal matters shows investment in more than just the workload or final product; it’s evidence that you care about your co-workers on an individual level, as well.
Show appreciation for others
Everyone likes to feel valued at work, but tight deadlines and packed schedules can make it difficult to recognize colleagues for a job well done. Taking a few minutes to show your appreciation when collaborating with others can foster teamwork and camaraderie.
Carve out a few minutes a week to consider your team's recent efforts. Did one of your co-workers take on extra work while another team member was out sick? Did your boss provide extra support with a new project? Take the time to thank them.
You might kick off meetings with shout-outs for those who went the extra mile, or send at least one "thank you" email or Slack message to a co-worker each week. Building a culture of gratitude at work can combat workplace loneliness by helping people feel valued and connected to one another.
Socialize outside of the office
Building a community in the workplace doesn’t have to happen during working hours. If your office has resumed even partial in-person operations, consider organizing or joining a social activity.
Starting a staff sports league, attending post-work happy hours, or other activities can strengthen your relationships with co-workers. If you can’t join in on the after-hours fun because of a busy home life (or because you need space after a long work day), suggest taking lunch away from the office and putting a moratorium on work-related topics. Adding some casual socializing into your workday can transform acquaintances into potential friends and increase the sense of community in your 9-to-5.
If you’re not comfortable with in-person interactions, or if you’re working remotely, consider virtual ways to get involved with your colleagues. Online staff events don’t have to be a thing of the past if your team was actively engaged and excited about connecting with one another. If you all have Zoom fatigue, then starting a few Slack channels for niche topics or organizing a virtual game league are low-lift ways to have fun with co-workers.
Cultivating moments for interpersonal connection is essential for combating loneliness, and it doesn't have to be limited to your workplace. Joining up with like-minded folks through professional organizations and local events can also improve feelings of isolation while broadening your network.
Combating workplace loneliness as an older professional
For older professionals reentering the workforce after time away or switching fields from the private sector, building community may feel more challenging or daunting. To break down how older professionals can avoid feeling isolated at work, we contacted our friends at AARP Foundation to share tips and guidance.
AARP’s charity affiliate serves people over 50 with low income through grants, resources, and programs aimed at tackling senior poverty. By hosting skill-building workshops and coaching sessions aimed at building digital literacy, assisting with the job search, and starting a business or gig work, AARP Foundation helps these individuals find economic stability and address challenges in the workplace. The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), in particular, matches people over 55 with local nonprofits and public agencies to increase skills and build self-confidence, while earning a modest income.
When it comes to connecting with colleagues, according to AARP Foundation, older people more often than not face the same challenges as other professionals. For those who work in-person, try bringing up non-work topics during lunch to connect with your teammates. Building up digital skills can also go a long way in fostering healthy relationships, particularly if your work is hybrid or remote.
If you feel like you’re in a different life stage than younger colleagues, asking about their personal lives can reveal some common ground. You may find out a co-worker has a child at the same school as your grandson, or that someone in another department loves the same football team as you. Starting a mentorship program can also help you connect with others by sharing your expertise or learning from those who have useful experience in the social-impact sector.
Most of our perceptions about age and generational differences are not rooted in facts. AARP Foundation shared that some older professionals may be excluded from social activities because they’re perceived as disinterested, even though they want to find a community among colleagues, too. A recent AARP survey found that 62% of adults age 50 and older think older workers face discrimination in the workplace today based on age, which can lead to negative workplace interactions.
By remaining aware of discrimination and dismantling stereotypes of older professionals, your workplace can become a more healthy and inclusive place for people of all ages.
At the very least, your organization should help nurture connections between colleagues. If no work is currently being done in this realm, suggest a few of the above activities at the next staff meeting or check-in with your manager. By asking for everyone’s perspective regardless of title, age, or experience level, you’ll make sure your colleagues feel well-represented in whatever you pursue.
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Jill Nawrocki is a Licensed Social Worker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer living in Brooklyn. She is an ultra runner, freelance writer and social justice warrior with a background in program management, direct practice, mindfulness and advocacy.