Let’s talk about workplace loneliness: How do you know if you’re lonely at work?

17 March 2021


“I’m feeling very lonely at work. I can spend an entire day here without anyone in my department talking to me. I am usually very friendly and chatty and make friends wherever I work. I can’t seem to get people here to warm up at all – they’re nice but not very sociable. It depresses me, and now I feel as if I hate my job and everyone here.”

Do you ever feel left out at work, or that your voice is not heard? Do you find yourself wanting to share something at work but there’s no one to turn to? Do you want better social connection at work but can’t seem to find it? If so, you may be experiencing workplace loneliness.

I am a researcher at the University of Canterbury specialising in emotions in organisations, loneliness, management education, and social relations in organisational contexts. My preliminary research suggests the work environment can ‘induce’ loneliness in otherwise socially engaged people. Workplace loneliness is the distress of perceived relationship deficiencies and can be devastating for an individual’s mental and physical health.

‘Loneliness is not only about feeling socially isolated or lacking connection, it is also about not being seen, heard or understood.’

In the workplace, lonely workers have lower performance ratings, are less committed and less approachable than their non-lonely co-workers, and take twice as much sick leave. But loneliness is not only about feeling socially isolated or lacking connection, it is also about not being seen, heard or understood, and feeling disconnected and marginalised from groups and institutions such as the organisations that employ us. Loneliness is typically a wretched feeling but can have a motivating effect in that it signals us to find ways to connect with others or change the environment we’re in.

‘I always feel like I’m the odd one at work. I feel ashamed to be upset by things … because everyone, you know, is jovial and together but I feel like I’m not joining in any conversations or having fun with people.’

How does loneliness develop in the workplace?

Because loneliness is a subjective experience, we need to understand the interaction between the individual and their social environment and how the person perceives that environment. In some work environments, the emphasis is often on individual achievement and competitiveness, volatility, and impersonal social relationships. Some people might thrive in such an environment, whereas others might find it alienating and depersonalising which conjure up feelings of loneliness.

Wright and Silard propose several pathways to loneliness at work, including how much an individual wants to connect with others at work and the value they place on social connection, social skills in that environment, individual differences such as introversion, shyness and narcissism, limited social interaction at work, the kind of interpersonal behaviours experienced at work, and feelings of being marginalised by others.

‘Once a person thinks they are excluded from social relationships and feels friendless, they start to feel negative emotions such as depression, sadness, and general meaninglessness when at work.’

Preliminary analyses from workers from several countries suggest that once a person thinks they are excluded from social relationships and feels friendless, they start to feel negative emotions such as depression, sadness, and general meaninglessness when at work which is a viscous loop that makes them feel even lonelier. The most pronounced triggers appear to be when a worker feels rejected by others, excluded or made to feel left out of a known social ‘clique’ at work. Therefore, when the environment is not fulfilling social needs adequately, a usually well-adjusted sociable character can develop the behaviours and thought processes typically attributable to chronically lonely individuals.


We know that workplace loneliness can influence unsatisfactory work relationships, employee’s intention to leave, poorer performance, and work stress.

How is being lonely at work perceived?

Few people go through life and escape the feelings of being lonely, yet it is often perceived as an individual problem stemming from ‘social difficulties’ the person may have. There appears to be a ‘blame the victim’ mentality for the development of loneliness where personal factors are overestimated as reasons for loneliness, and only modest emphasis is given to environmental factors. Because of the perception that loneliness is self-induced, it tends to be difficult to discuss with others because we feel vulnerability and failure when admitting ‘weaknesses’. However, my preliminary research is starting to show that loneliness stems in part from factors in the person’s social environment rather than being exclusively determined by personal deficiencies.

“I’d like to be of use at work, and be comfortable enough that someone higher up would want to speak with me and, like, see me, and you’re sort of actually having those conversations that go in different directions and realise that others at work really listen to you.”

How do we solve loneliness in the workplace?

The answer is both simple and complex – simple in theory, complex in reality. Belongingness is the opposite of loneliness, so to overcome loneliness in any context, an individual needs to feel a sense of belonging and to feel valued by others around them. From an individual perspective, one strategy individuals can use is to focus on developing brief connections with others throughout the day where possible, e.g. asking others about their views and listening to them (which helps build interpersonal trust). From an organisational perspective, allowing space and time for staff to socialise (e.g. tearooms, scheduling meetings with time to socialise beforehand) can help foster a climate of interpersonal connectedness, which staves off feelings of marginalisation.


Policies that shape the way we interact with each other within educational, health, social and workplace settings can help combat loneliness in a formalised way.

What future research is needed for the study of workplace loneliness?

There is very little research on workplace loneliness. I am interested in the experience of loneliness, but we need research on its prevalence, its consequences, and empirically driven interventions that may help to prevent or reduce loneliness. Loneliness reflects a breakdown in social interaction and the quality of interpersonal relationships, and negatively influences a person’s reasoning and decision-making ability. Studying workplace loneliness will give us insight into communication problems, negative organisational cultures, and can assist with counselling interventions (e.g. EAP).

Developing a body of knowledge on the topic will contribute to efforts to avert the more severe, persisting consequences that can result from being chronically lonely.

‘I feel warm and empowered, I think, happy … something about this place feels right … I think it’s because they are trying to make a connection with me.’


Dr Sarah Wright is an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury College of Business and Law. You can learn more about Dr Wright’s research interests and work here.