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Loneliness at work - a growing impact

A lonely remote worker
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Whilst encouraging a tubby dog to waddle from one side of a field to another during a rare summer’s day, I once again found myself immersed in the UK’s election mood music by listening to a podcast. In the midst of the usual questioning, the Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk provided one moment of affecting honesty when asked about his friendships in the job. After a little reflection, he admitted that amongst 650 MPs and the 3,000 people that work in Parliament every day, as well as those colleagues who have departed the scene, his number of actual friendships within politics was limited to 4 or 5 people. It prompted me to question whether this was representative, or atypical. 

Every day, many of us find ourselves surrounded by colleagues. In theory, there should be more than enough people to go around to provide reassurance that we are not alone. More than enough people to reassure us that we are part of something bigger and that we can rely upon those around us when things get tough. 

Yet a sense of loneliness amongst the working population is growing. This isn’t merely subjective. In the recent Gallup State of the Workplace study, this issue was worryingly prominent:

“Globally, 1 in 5 employees report experiencing loneliness a lot of the previous day. This percentage is higher for employees under 35 and lower for those over the age of 35.”

Whilst it's a statement that seems to be on the wane, many businesses still have a tendency to claim that they are ‘more like a family’. Delusion aside, is a family really what you would want from a workplace? Isn’t a workplace filled with friendships better-suited to quell any nagging sense of loneliness?

I write this from my home office, in isolation, as part of a small business. I can sense when I’ve been here too long, without a range of voices, connections and varied environments from which I can draw strength. Simple tasks seem to take longer and motivation can diminish more quickly. When working in-person with Dan, delivering sessions to clients or simply experiencing a few relatively inconsequential interactions in the city, the spring in my step and the intensity of my concentration is boosted, spilling over into the next day. The impact of connection is notable in my mood, my output, my outlook.

When we aren’t delivering sessions for clients, Dan intentionally works in the bustling city centre, to surround himself with like-minded people. His focus and attention is stimulated by these environments and he draws strength from the community setting. For both of us, it seems we are acutely aware of making a concerted effort to keep the ‘loneliness wolf’ from the door.  

Flexibility; the trade-off

The post-pandemic era has profoundly shifted our working patterns and locations. This is obvious, but the impact it’s had on our connections to one another is less visible. The Gallup report went on to state that:

“Fully remote employees report significantly higher levels of loneliness (25%) than those who work fully on-site (16%).”

Often, home is cited as being an oasis of calm, where great work can be completed without interruption. Yet for many, the impact of loneliness outweighs any perceived productivity benefits. 

There is a striking dissonance between the promise of technology and its unintended side-effects. The purpose of instant, easily-accessible communication is to narrow the gaps between us. To bring us all closer together. Yet these statistics showcase an increasingly disconnected working world, leading to greater instances of isolation amongst the remote workers who are totally reliant on this technology. 

Frictionless communication seems to have accelerated human disconnection. 

This isn’t a call to “get back to the office”. The statistics above demonstrate that loneliness is on the rise, even in bustling environments. But it could be worthwhile to reflect on our own circumstances. Can varying our working environments help not just to boost our productive output, but also provide a crucial opportunity to connect with other people? 

The answer appears to be yes. Yet still we place insufficient value on our workplace relationships.

Fun; what is it good for? 

One of the reasons Alex Chalk gave for his limited friendships was that of moral obligation. He wanted to enter Parliament without having his judgements potentially being compromised by a fondness for colleagues. This is commendable, however it did also make me consider if this logic has permeated many of our workplaces.

A commitment to exacting standards can render workplaces fun-free environments. 

The biggest predictor of workplace engagement is whether someone reports having a best friend at work. But 40% of workers claimed not to have a single close friend in their place of work. Has our commitment to professionalism diminished the likelihood of making friends, negatively impacting our mental health? The observations made in the recent United Nations’ Human Development Report suggest so:

“People’s mental wellbeing has been worsening. In the last 10 years, the number of people expressing stress, sadness, anxiety, anger or worry has been on the rise, reaching its highest levels since the Gallup surveys began.”

Very often, we state the objectives of work in stark terms. Productive output, efficiency and growth. 

Yet the purpose of work in our lives has the power to be so much greater. Work can act as an antidote to loneliness. It has the capacity to create environments that can cultivate friendships and build communities. 

Unquestionably, we all need flexibility in modern work. 

Yet whether you are a sole trader, a small business, a remote worker or part of a far larger in-office team, an honest assessment of your environment can be enormously beneficial.  If you feel your output stagnate, or you become aware of a creeping sense of isolation, perhaps the simple act of changing your environment and working amongst others can start to stem the rising tide of loneliness.


4and20Million help teams tackle the biggest challenges of modern work. 

To discuss a course package that’s right for you, please contact Alex or Dan through the details below.


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