Who's Lonely at Work and Why
A new Cigna survey notes the types of jobs where people feel loneliest
All the lonely workers
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely workers
Where do they all belong?
— Apologies to John Lennon and Paul McCartney
After reading Cigna’s fascinating and sad Loneliness and the Workplace 2020 U.S. Report, I couldn’t help but hear “Eleanor Rigby” in my head. While Rigby waited at the window, “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” sizable numbers of American workers appear to wear that face on the job.
“We learned from our survey that loneliness is increasing across the United States and that people who are lonely are less engaged at work and feel less productive at work,” said Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, a global health services company that offers employer-based insurance.
Cigna surveyed 10,441 adults online to measure loneliness in America, and especially in the workplace. To measure loneliness, the researchers asked people questions using the UCLA Loneliness Scale; a score of 43 or higher, out of 80, is considered lonely.
A stunning 41% of employed men reported feeling a general sense of emptiness at work in 2019, while only 29% of working women do.
Among the study's findings:
Loneliness increased significantly for boomers and Gen Xers in 2019 compared to a year ago. Boomers scored 43.2 on the loneliness scale in 2019, up from 42.4, and Gen Xers were even lonelier, with a 47compared to 45.1 in 2018.
But the older workers were happier in their work environment than younger ones. The loneliness scores for Gen Z and millennials in 2019: 49.9 and 47.7 respectively.
Men felt lonelier at work than women in 2019; in 2018, there was no difference between the genders. A stunning 41% of employed men reported feeling a general sense of emptiness at work in 2019, while only 29% of working women do. About a third of employed men (32%) said they felt abandoned by coworkers when under pressure and also felt alienated by coworkers. By contrast, just 23% of working women felt abandoned by coworkers and only 25% of them felt alienated by their colleagues.
Entertainment industry workers, gig economy workers and caregivers were especially lonely. People in the fields of entertainment, in fact, had the highest average loneliness score. And by business type, gig economy workers were the loneliest across the board, followed by small-business owners. And two-thirds of caregivers are lonely — compared to 58% of those who aren’t primary caregivers. “Gig economy workers move from one job to the next,” without having much time to bond with others, Nemecek said.
Remote workers are more likely to feel lonely than people working in offices with colleagues nearby. More than half of remote workers surveyed (53%) said they always or sometimes feel isolated from others, quite a bit higher than the 48% of people who work “in-person.” Similarly, 53% of remote workers said they feel they lack companionship always or sometimes, while only 46% of non-remote workers do.
And Hispanic and African American workers feel lonelier than whites. The Hispanic and African American workers surveyed were more likely than whites to say they felt abandoned by coworkers when under pressure at work; more alienated from coworkers and more emotionally distant at work.
Feeling lonely at work isn’t just problematic for the employees. It’s tough on their employers, too. Cigna found that lonely workers are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness than ones who aren’t lonely and they’re five times as likely to miss a day of work due to stress. And, in an average month, lonely workers think about quitting more than twice as often as non-lonely workers.
Technology and Loneliness on the Job
Why are so many feeling so lonely at work?
“Some things we see is that people are feeling they don’t have others they can talk to at work,” said Nemecek. “We’re not feeling we can be ourselves.”
Modern technology plays a role, too.
The ability to work from home, or from anywhere other than a collegial office, Nemecek added, can lead to isolation and then a feeling of loneliness. “The modern workplace changes that technology brings are helpful for flexibility, but may be contributing to loneliness,” he said.
The survey’s findings suggest that employers could do a much better job helping their staffers feel less lonely.
What Employers Can Do to Help
“Employers need to understand the impact social connections have,” said Nemecek. “We are all social beings and it’s important for wellness to have connections and relationships with other people. We want employers to make sure their workplace culture still allows, and promotes, people to have in-person connections.”
As someone who works remotely, I second that. The weekly video calls I have with my colleagues offer much more than just information-sharing; they offer virtual relationships. Without them, I can spend the entire day not seeing anyone other than my wonderful dog, Joey, and the UPS man.
Not all remote workers, or employers, favor video meetings, though. “In many places, the culture is: ‘I don’t want the camera on to see how I’m dressed or where I’m working at home,’” said Nemecek. “But by not taking advantage of that, it makes it harder for us to get to know the other people.”
The Good News About Some Older Workers
I was especially intrigued by what Cigna learned about the loneliness of older workers, especially ones with long tenure at their jobs. Here, the news is uplifting.
According to the study, workers who’ve been with their employer for 10 years or longer are much less lonely than new employees.
“Having a long-tenured role with an employer and the opportunity to have confidants and friends through work can help you not feel as lonely,” said Nemecek.
But there’s an exception to this rule: As the saying goes, it really is lonely at the top. Cigna found that senior executives (and entry-level workers) are the most likely groups to report feeling there’s no one they can turn to; not feeling close to anyone at work and that no one really knows them well.
One reason: office design.
“We often put executives in corner offices or on higher floors or far away from the rest of employees,” said Nemecek.
Advice for Workers to Feel Less Lonely
Since Nemecek is an M.D., with a long career in psychiatry before joining Cigna, I asked for his medical advice on what workers can do to feel less lonely at work.
“Maintaining general health, through sleeping and eating and exercising well,” he said. But, he added, it’s also “important to think: ‘How can I engage with others at work?’”
That can mean going out to eat rather than scarfing down a salad at work. Or volunteering or socializing with colleagues on the weekend. “Leverage every opportunity you may have,” said Nemecek.
If you’re a remote worker, he added, it’s even more essential to take the initiative to get out from behind your desk and spend time with others.
I’ll work on that.