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Opinion - Workforce Wire

Op-ed: Connected, yet lacking connections: How we can combat loneliness at work

Karyn Twaronite, EY Global Vice Chair – Diversity, Equity & Inclusiveness
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Key Points
  • As the global pandemic rages on and companies make hybrid and remote work more permanent, feelings of loneliness have intensified.
  • More than 80% of employee respondents globally have felt or feel lonely at work, according to the EY Belonging Barometer 2.0 study.
  • Nearly half feel lonelier today than they did prior to the pandemic.
10'000 Hours | DigitalVision | Getty Images

Today's world has us more connected by technology, but it seems lacking in the connections that matter most: human interactions. As the global pandemic rages on and companies make hybrid and remote work more permanent, feelings of loneliness have intensified. We all feel it and see it happening around us, so let's talk about it.

An Ipsos survey confirms loneliness is on the rise – with two in five people globally reporting becoming lonelier over a six month period in 2020-21. What's more, a study found that loneliness and social isolation makes premature death more likely for people of all ages and linked loneliness to a number of health risks.

In our EY Belonging Barometer 2.0 study, EY professionals surveyed more than 5,000 adults employed in companies across the U.S., the UK, mainland China, Germany and Brazil. The findings were striking: more than 80% of employee respondents globally have felt or feel lonely at work. And, 49% feel lonelier today than they did prior to the pandemic. What does that mean for our workplaces and what do companies need to know?

Well, for starters,  research from The Wharton School and California State University found that the lonelier people are at work, the worse they perform and the less committed they are to their organizations. Nearly half of respondents in the EY study admit they're likely to leave a job if they are feeling lonely at it.

Perhaps most concerning is that 90% of employees suffering from loneliness say they would not tell their supervisor they were struggling. This means employers are operating with a massive blind spot — one one that's likely affecting engagement, productivity and retention.

Leaders can take actions that can have a meaningful and far-reaching impact with their people. Here are some ideas to help address loneliness at work and build a culture where everyone belongs:

Place an emphasis on teaming

Having a voice and being able to speak up is key and mattered to one-third of global employees in the EY study. I've personally made some positive impact with explicitly inviting every team member to speak on team calls to help ensure all voices are heard – not just the loudest or the most senior voices. I've also seen my colleagues have impact with more informal collaboration through "hang outs," casual video chats and drop-in sessions.

Encourage checking in, not checking up

When asked how a leader can make their people feel less lonely and more like they belong, the top global response (36%) was checking in about how they are doing both personally and professionally. A check-in is not just asking, "How are you?" The gesture should be authentic, go deeper, and be led with empathy, not productivity. It's also important to listen carefully and ask follow-up questions, when appropriate. It's not magic, but I find it matters to simply ask, "So how can I help you?" The answers are often doable and have been within my reach. So as a leader you don't need to have all the answers or solve every problem – just be there for your people so they feel heard and included.

Communicate with authenticity and vulnerability

To facilitate connections and to create a safe space for discussions, leaders need to be transparent with their teams about how they're feeling personally. When leaders are candid in sharing their own challenges and how they're overcoming them, this can open up conversations that, in turn, allow them to learn more about unique situations and the well-being needs of their diverse teams. On our team we recently had leaders share about childcare challenges and even some fun things at work, like project closing celebrations and offsites.

Empower employees to play a role

Employees may not always be willing to speak up about their own personal challenges, but they can help foster better connections with peers and supervisors. In fact, research from Gallup a few years ago found a link between an individual having a "best friend" at work and the amount of effort an employee puts into their job. Consider encouraging people to become allies and advocates for their teammates – helping to build a culture of belonging and inclusion in the workplace. It can be as simple as inviting someone outside the core team to join a meeting. I also ask my team members to have virtual coffee or lunch once a week with a new colleague. It's good practice to expand your horizons and can also build new friendships. I do it both inside and outside the EY organization, and it helps.

Loneliness has become pervasive in our workplaces – and rates are continuing to grow. Now is the time to address it head on. How leaders, in particular, step up to support their people is critical and can leave a lasting impact. Acting now will, over time, help build a culture where people feel seen, not just as employees, but as human beings – allowing for stronger, more meaningful relationships and deeper connections that may prevent loneliness from taking hold in the first place. 

Karyn Twaronite is the EY Global Vice Chair – Diversity, Equity & Inclusiveness. She can be found on Twitter: @KTwaronite_EY.  

To join the CNBC Workforce Executive Council, apply at cnbccouncils.com/wec.