How Loneliness Affects Employee Productivity

Our job performance takes a hit when we feel cut off from others in the workplace and our social needs aren’t being met.

Written by Rachel Unger

How Loneliness Affects Employee Productivity

01 Social connections are an important part of maintaining good mental health.

02 When workers feel lonely, it can negatively impact their ability to perform on the job and harms their relationships with coworkers.

03 To mitigate loneliness, employers can intentionally create opportunities for employees to connect with one another.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, we are more connected now than ever before. However, that doesn’t mean we’re less lonely. In fact, people are feeling increasingly isolated despite rising levels of digital connection. 

61% of Americans reported they felt lonely in 2020, and more than a third reported feeling a general sense of emptiness or disconnection from others when they are at work. Loneliness has gained greater public awareness in recent decades for its harmful effects on health and quality of life. In the UK, a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in 2018, and the former US Surgeon General declared loneliness a public health epidemic. Research has linked loneliness to increased risk for depression, cognitive decline and even premature death.

We can all feel lonely at one time or another. Loneliness is a subjective — and painful — feeling that has more to do with the quality of our relationships and social interactions than the quantity. Researchers have been studying the effects of loneliness for decades, but it hasn’t been examined in the context of the workplace until recently.

The Science of Feeling Lonely

Loneliness vs. social isolation: what's the difference?

As humans, we have an inherent need to socialize. Our job performance takes a hit when we feel cut off from others in the workplace and our social needs aren’t being met. Lonely workers report feeling less productive and engaged, and they are five times as likely to miss work due to stress. In addition to causing absenteeism, loneliness can drive retention rates down. Lonely workers think about quitting more than twice as often as their non-lonely counterparts.

Although lonelier employees crave connection, loneliness can also cause people to self-isolate and act in ways that alienate others. Lonelier employees seem less approachable and are subsequently left out of the loop when it comes to a lot of office communication. A lack of support and frequent, meaningful social interactions also increase the risk of burnout, another pervasive issue in the modern workplace.

So why does loneliness have such a negative effect on work productivity? 

When suffering from a lack of human connection at work, employees feel less committed to their organization and don’t perform at the same level as other workers. A study in the Academy of Management Journal showed that worker loneliness correlated with lower performance ratings from their supervisors. 

Chronic loneliness can also contribute to the development of major depressive disorder, which negatively impacts productivity by making concentration and attentiveness excruciatingly difficult. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy on Loneliness in the Workplace

Research has shown that loneliness impacts retention, productivity, creativity and more.

Lonely workers report feeling less productive and engaged, and they are 5x as likely to miss work due to stress.

Studies show that depression strongly correlates with productivity loss in the workplace. Loneliness and depression aren’t just an issue for sufferers and their loved ones; depression costs employers an estimated $44 billion each year in lost productivity. Even less severe symptoms of depression are associated with work impairment.

As many workers are transitioning to full-time remote work, the question of social isolation is even more relevant. What happens when you remove the in-person aspects of the job and lose the interactions that organically occur in the physical office? Many remote workers in 2020 reported greater overall job satisfaction, but one in five said loneliness was their biggest struggle with working remotely. Researchers who studied teleworkers found that their job performance suffered the most when they had limited face-to-face interactions.

Managers and higher-ups have an opportunity to foster a culture of companionship, one in which relationships can naturally grow and thrive. 

Promoting and participating in social activities, even online, can help strengthen connections among coworkers. Setting aside dedicated times to connect can give employees the chance to improve information-sharing and teamwork. Happy hours, coffee dates, skill sharing sessions, book clubs, online group games and virtual movie nights are just a few of the ways that leaders can create a more inclusive work environment. 

Employees may feel shy or embarrassed mentioning that they're having a tough time. That’s why a culture of compassion is so important. In addition to scheduling team events, try kicking off internal meetings with check-ins or casual updates on people's days. Bake friendly, genuine interaction into as much of your day-to-day as you can. When people feel like you really care, and that their voice matters, it’s easier to open up. Simple gestures can make a big impact. 

Now that more of us are working from home, we need to be creative about how we can boost our sense of connectedness from afar — to ensure both our wellbeing and our ability to stay productive and engaged at work. 

About the author

Rachel Unger is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She's passionate about raising mental health awareness and promoting fairness in the workplace.

Original Series

Support our work

We’re on a mission to change how the world perceives mental health.