Workplace Loneliness: Expert Advice

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Throughout February we have been exploring the issue of office loneliness – the impact of being lonely at work, signs that your colleagues might be suffering from loneliness and tips from organisations and entrepreneurs for building a happy workplace.

To round off our Loneliness in the Workplace month, coach and training consultant Katie Duckworth kindly agreed to author a guest blog for us. Here she shares her experience of office loneliness, and her expertise on how employers can support their workers to feel less lonely and isolated in their work.

Katie coaching“A while ago I worked for a large UK charity where I shared space with four colleagues in a bright corner office. There were dozens of others working on my floor. The organisation employed hundreds of people around the country. And yet, I was thoroughly lonely.

On paper the job was perfect, but sharing an office with heads-down introverts where silence reigned and working in an organisational culture that did little to combat the loneliness I felt (after leaving a vibrant, sociable office where I’d made friends for life) took its toll and I quickly moved on.

So what would I have appreciated from my managers and colleagues? How could this situation have been avoided so I could have stayed, enjoyed my work and been able to contribute my very best to the organisation?

Here are five suggestions drawn from my experience of working as a coach and trainer in the not-for-profit sector. None is a single solution for workplace loneliness but surely worth exploring at a time when the problem is getting worse – according to research 4/10 of us say we have no good workplace friend. 

  1. A more collaborative culture – I can see now that the competitive culture there stopped me from building strong and supportive relationships. People took credit for others’ work and failed to acknowledge individual’s successes and efforts. It made me mistrustful and unwilling to share my feelings of inadequacy even with some of the nice people in my room. I would have loved a more collaborative atmosphere where colleagues were truly encouraged to work together to solve problems and where there were no failures, publicly called out, only learning opportunities.
  1. Sociable, shared space– There was a delightful garden in which to have lunch but hardly anyone used it. One of the most successful anti-loneliness strategies I now see in my work is shared space for informal gatherings at breaks and lunchtimes. Colleagues from different parts of the business can mingle, sit together to chat or share work ideas. It also has the added benefit of encouraging people to take a break from their screens.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate – a big table in the corner of the office is enough. If I’d had this facility it would have made lunchtimes so much more bearable.
  1. More cross-organisational social events – Enforced fun is no-one’s idea of fun but opportunities to socialise in informal events would have been very welcome for a natural extrovert keen to get to know people. ‘Bring and share’ lunchtime talks and workshops such as morning yoga or a regular book club are a good way to bring people together in a sociable, non-threatening way. Events like these also recognise and celebrate people’s skills and talents above and beyond their job descriptions, which is, of course, hugely affirming. There’s no need to bring in leaders from outside – there’ll be a wealth of talent in-house.
  1. Cross-organisational work opportunities – I would really have appreciated the chance to work with other teams across the organisation, for example, by being invited to join a working group or a planning committee for the Christmas party, for instance. I may have found someone I clicked with outside my immediate environment and just that one soulmate might have turned things around for me.
  1. A little more attention – it’s often the small things that make a difference – being included in tea rounds, knowing each other’s birthdays, getting invitations out to lunch, people noticing if you stay at your desk all day long or seem to be down. And this is important not just for colleagues (who did their best to make me feel included) but managers, too. All these would have given me a better sense of belonging and of being valued and appreciated by the organisation in which I worked.

 

Katie Duckworth has worked in the charity sector for 30 years. She is now Director of Be The Change (www.be-the-change.org.uk)

Katie is a changemaker, writer, speaker, coach and trainer with a gift for helping purpose-led organisations and teams rediscover their zest for creating a better world.  She firmly believes that happier people are an essential and often overlooked factor in supporting non-profits to achieve their goals. 

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