How to combat loneliness caused by sustained periods of remote working

Working from home can make us more efficient, but it’s the face-to-face interactions and opportunities to give, support and help our colleagues or clients that make our work meaningful, as Hodar Lam, Steffen Giessner and Meir Shemla report

Many employees are now being forced to work from home and physically isolate themselves from friends and colleagues, this has resulted in loneliness for many. However according to new research from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), there are ways to stop us from feeling so lonely.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is the subjective, unpleasant feeling of social disconnection. It is different from objective conditions, such as social isolation, exclusion, ostracism, aloneness, and a lack of social support. What is means is that one may feel lonely without being alone, and vice versa. Although during this crisis our distance with others amplifies loneliness, we also reflect more on the meaningful, valued relationships we once had in the workplace – coffee chats at the pantry, team drinks after work on Fridays, group overtime work to finish a project, etc.

Despite its undesirable nature (those who claim to enjoy loneliness are actually experiencing solitude, the positive experience of being alone that sometimes drives creativity and better decision making), some scholars have argued that loneliness, when felt temporarily, serves an important function of human survival: it signals the threat of isolation and motivates individuals to seek connections with others. Sadly, some may ignore the signal, focus on avoiding more social threats, and withdraw themselves from other interactions, thus falling prey to the self-reinforcing cycle of loneliness.

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a mental health concern. Research evidence suggested increased mortality and higher risks of depression and anxiety disorders. The United Kingdom, for example, has recently appointed a ‘Minister of Loneliness’ to devise plans to fight against the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Nevertheless, in the work contexts, loneliness has not received much attention, possibly because it is quite a sensitive topic. Employees who admit that they are lonely are often seen as emotionally ‘weak’, unsociable, shy, etc. Yet recent evidence has confirmed that workplace loneliness is indeed an issue and relates to poor job performance, low employee commitment to work, higher chance of burnout, and more sleep problems.

What can individual employees do to combat loneliness?

The RSM research team has provided four tips that can help to prevent loneliness while working from home:

1Engage in self-disclosure. Sharing your feelings and information is a powerful way to maintaining relationships at work. The more you share with your colleagues and your supervisors – for example talking about your worries about the current situation – the more likely you will feel connected and authentic. But be careful; sharing information that disrupts the way others have usually seen you may backfire. Appropriate, ethical disclosure is key. So, dear readers, why don’t you schedule a call or meeting with your boss and colleagues just for a virtual coffee chat and talk about yourself?

2Create meaning in virtual work. Are you starting to feel bored by working on tasks in front of the computer? By focusing on the needs and feelings of others, you can add meaning to your work relationships and pay less attention to thoughts and emotions that trigger loneliness. You can reach out to your colleagues, give some support or advice, and say thank you to those who have been nice and helpful to you at work. Ask yourself and your colleagues why they do the work they do. This way you can create meaning. Realise and appreciate that you are doing important work – whether it’s from home or the office.

3Reminisce about the good old times. Studies have found that recollecting the positive incidents helps reduce loneliness. The next time you feel lonely working from home, try recalling a happy outing with your colleagues or eat something you might eat in the office canteen – our brains automatically associate comfort food with meaningful relationships. You may also share these ‘old’ stories and pictures with your colleagues on socialising platforms – for the sake of nostalgia.

4Know what your tasks are. At home, we are easily distracted. And if you are uncertain about your role in your team, you may feel helpless when isolated in remote working conditions. In other words, you need to know what your tasks are and how they contribute to your team work. If you are feeling uncertain about your tasks, duties, and responsibilities right now, ask your supervisor to clarify your role in the current working conditions.

How can organisations support lonely employees?

Loneliness at work is not only an individual matter. The RSM research team believe that the COVID-19 crisis is the most dreaded moment for organisations to show their emotional support. Here are three tips for organisations to experiment:

1Reduce stigma of negative emotions. As mentioned, loneliness, but also other negative feelings such as anger, frustration, worries, could all be sensitive topics to discuss work. Organisations should communicate, via internal communications or informal channels, that it is normal to have these feelings, and encourage colleagues to self-disclose and discuss their emotions.

2Shift to a warm, loving organisational culture. The way employees express, regulate, and experience emotion is depending on the ‘rules’ derived from organisational cultures. Task-driven, instrumental cultures may encourage the suppression of feelings (especially negative ones) and make work relationships seem less meaningful. Instead, cultures characterised by respect, empathy, and companionate love promote supportive interactions among employees.

3Adapt mentoring programs to digital contexts. Mentors are important resources for both informational and emotional support. With the current new work forms, organisations should design even more structured mentoring schemes to keep this valuable supportive system running. Some measures include structuring several initial meetings, allowing try-out sessions to explore the mentor-protégé fit, and formally recognising the mentors’ contributions.

When we work remotely for a long period of time, we lose the vast majority of our spontaneous interactions with others. Non-verbal information from virtual work interactions is limited. For example, we can’t see a friendly smile or a worrying frown through email exchanges and instant messaging. These signals, provide strong socio-emotional values to keep us feel connected. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis requires us to keep any social face-to-face contact to the minimum. So, not surprisingly, feeling lonely at home is now more likely. No one is an island. It is normal to feel lonely while working from home, as loneliness is a signal reminding us to stay connected. And we can stay connected, be it at the office or online.

Crisis-related research series

This article is part of our crisis-related research series: a growing collection of research-based thought pieces and opinions from RSM’s academics and researchers. Topics range from tips for battling loneliness to the ethical dilemmas faced by managers and leaders.

Hodar Lam is a PhD Candidate at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

Steffen R Giessner is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Change at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

Meir Shemla is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and the Academic Director of the MBA programme at Rotterdam School of Management

You may also like...