SHRM All Things Work

Encore: Jennifer Moss on Why Workplace Loneliness Matters

Episode Summary

*** This is an encore broadcast of February's episode with Jennifer Moss on Why Workplace Loneliness Matters. Stay subscribed for more new episodes coming soon. *** Nearly half of employees report they feel lonely at work, and the negative effects of workplace loneliness are numerous. It can contribute to employee burnout, mental health concerns and talent shortages. In this episode of All Things Work, award-winning journalist, author and workplace culture strategist Jennifer Moss joins host Tony Lee to discuss why employers should care if their employees are lonely, and what to do about it.

Episode Notes

*** This is an encore broadcast of February's episode with Jennifer Moss on Why Workplace Loneliness Matters. Stay subscribed for more new episodes coming soon. ***

Nearly half of employees report they feel lonely at work, and the negative effects of workplace loneliness are numerous. It can contribute to employee burnout, mental health concerns and talent shortages. In this episode of All Things Work, award-winning journalist, author and workplace culture strategist Jennifer Moss joins host Tony Lee to discuss why employers should care if their employees are lonely, and what to do about it.

Follow All Things Work wherever you listen to podcasts; rate and review on Apple Podcasts.

Music courtesy of bensound.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Welcome back to All Things Work, and thanks for tuning in to this encore broadcast of February’s episode on Why Workplace Loneliness Matters. You can expect one more new 2023 podcast on this feed in early December. After that, we’ll be back in early 2024 with more new episodes, so stay subscribed, be well, and enjoy this encore.

Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, head of content here at SHRM. Thanks for joining us. All Things Work is an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and tastemakers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work.

Today, we're discussing the issue of loneliness in the workplace. Research shows that nearly half of Americans report they sometimes or always feel alone or left out, a percentage that has risen steadily since the start of the pandemic. Feelings of loneliness are most pervasive among remote workers as well as among Gen Z employees, with millennials ranking close behind. So why should employers care whether their employees are lonely or not? Because loneliness, which often ties to a lack of belonging, has a direct correlation to employee productivity, mental health, and burnout.

Joining us today to talk about this issue is Jennifer Moss. Jen is an award-winning journalist and author, an international speaker, and a workplace culture strategist based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Her most recent book, The Burnout Epidemic, was named one of the top 10 new management books of 2022. And her first book, Unlocking Happiness at Work, offered a deep dive into understanding workplace loneliness. Jen, welcome to All Things Work.

Jennifer Moss: I'm so glad to be with you, Tony.

Tony Lee: Thank you. So I guess my first question is, do you think the problem of workplace loneliness is easing or is it getting worse?

Jennifer Moss: The data is showing that it's not easing off. We're actually seeing higher levels of loneliness than we have seen in the past. A lot of that just had to do with the fact that we were in this social isolation mode and we had to play by these certain protocols and the rules, which is fair, but what it did is it made us more disconnected. And then obviously going from 4% of the workforce being remote workers, and then at the height of the pandemic it was 36%. Now it's around 25%. That will probably be like this way for a long time. There's a lot of reasons why we would feel less connected to our coworkers and just people in our community overall.

Tony Lee: Yeah, so let me ask you about that one point I made in the intro. I mean, why should employers care? You talk to a lot of employers that say, "Oh, they're lonely. Well, as long as they do their work, that's all I care about." Why is it an issue?

Jennifer Moss: Well, Gallup did this really big poll, and a lot of us are aware of this because they added it to their Q12. Do you have a best friend at work? There was really great data around why we need a best friend. 43% more likely to receive praise. We're 27% more likely to feel heard. Burnout is reduced by 41%. And we need friends. Unfortunately, only a third of the global workforce say or admit to having a best friend at work. So there's a lot of people that are not feeling those benefits. And then when you look too, there was some data that was gathered in the pandemic and it showed people, employees who have these thriving relationships with their immediate team reported higher overall wellbeing. They had also reported higher productivity. They're less likely to change employers in the year ahead is what was predicted. So there's all these benefits, but just there's not enough focus on building those productive relationships at work.

Tony Lee: So you tie loneliness to burnout. Why? I mean, everybody thinks of burnout is working 60, 70 and 80 hour weeks and just burning out, but being lonely is a contributing factor?

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. There's six root causes of burnout. Workload is always the leading cause because exhaustion, depletion really come from those high levels of unsustainable workload. But there's five other causes of burnout, root causes burnout. One of them is lack of community, loneliness and isolation, feeling othered, feeling like a lack of inclusion. And this is different than the lack of justice or lack of fairness piece. This is specific to not feeling community. And when you feel that way, especially during the pandemic, we saw there was this huge impact on especially our younger workforce, those that were just in new jobs for the first time. They were feeling like their career is atrophied because they weren't getting access to mentorship, they weren't getting access to their boss or their peers. And this is a really important time for those workers to feel that sense of connection.

Tony Lee: And what role do talent shortages play in here? I mean, if a company can't find people to fill roles, that's the workplace burnout because you're having to do your job and someone else's job. But I guess that can lead to loneliness too because there's frankly, there're fewer colleagues.

Jennifer Moss: It plays such a big role. It's interesting because we're seeing workload has dramatically increased. We've seen that people are burning out and exhausted. But when you really look at why work isn't working, a lot of it has to do with the inefficiencies that we've just continued to pile on. We've increased meetings by 252%, I mean in the last two years. So how do we have time to just be with our colleagues having fun? I keep saying that work right now is like school without art or gym or recess. We've just taken all the fun out of it. And that is where we build those relationships, those serendipitous moments, just being able to have time to talk with one another about life. And when you're working at these unsustainable levels, you don't get those chances.

Tony Lee: Although I will say I see a fair share of baloney sandwiches at lunchtime. So I guess that still retains.

Jennifer Moss: Right.

Tony Lee: So let's talk about remote work. Obviously, especially Gen Z and millennials, but pretty much everyone has embraced remote work. And whether they're fully remote or in a hybrid environment, you would think that would help lower loneliness, help lower burnout. Is that what you're seeing?

Jennifer Moss: We're seeing that the flexibility piece has been our huge plus. And I'm a person that likes to work remote and I have other ways that I connect with people, but there's other folks that are not enjoying the experience. And we've replaced with the in-office experience, especially when it comes to hybrid, is that you come into a ghost town and you're coming into these environments where it's just you sitting at a desk doing Zoom meetings. And so we're not building that new experience of hybrid or whatever that looks like in this post-pandemic work environment, future of work. And what's really unfortunate is that we're not looking at this as an opportunity to be transformational. We need to not force people back in the office, but draw them in by looking at it as an opportunity for us to engage with other people, be collaborative, find time to have fun again and change the way we look at the office. Because the way that we're doing it right now is just creating even more disconnect.

And I want to add too what is so interesting, I thought this was a really interesting point, is that when we go into the office, when we go into a meeting experience or we go in to meet our colleagues, we're going in there with a different expectation of the people we're meeting. It used to be you'd walk in the office, you'd see someone, you could be friends with anyone in any department. Right now we're just meeting people and the expectation of their personality traits are competency and efficiency, not are you funny and do we have shared interests? And that's changing the way we look at the people we're meeting and how we become friends with them.

Tony Lee: Interesting. So if I'm coming back to a physical workplace and I am lonely and I'm looking for connections, I mean, what can an employer do to help that?

Jennifer Moss: There needs to be a focus on it. Right now, again, and I get it, directors, managers, they're sandwiched, they have these high expectations, it's a lack of efficiencies across the board. And they're also, when you mentioned this hiring of people with this mass attrition event, it's just everyone's busy. So there's not an actual focus. It's sort of been sidelined this effort of making these connections with our friends. But it's really important for us to figure out how we can bring these connections together. Again, maybe if you are remote, is there a way for you to have some time that is in person with each other? I have lots of organizations that I've worked with that have changed the way that they think about hybrid. So much of us think it's two or three days in the office or it's all in or all nothing. We can still come in, say, once a quarter and have a time to be creative and meet our team.

Maybe it's a couple weeks of onboarding where we all gather together, develop those relationships, and then we have six months where we're working remotely, but we've still created a trust. It has to be that we are making work fun again. We've stopped using social collaboration for social purposes. It's become all work and no play. How do we use those platforms and that technology to actually make it fun and make connections? We also need to realize that maybe it's working together in work sprints when we're together in the office. So we're all sharing goals. Less competition, more shared goals. All of that does build relationships. And I also say have one non-work related check-in every single week just where you don't talk about work, you just talk about stuff and you hang out and you all get together and there's no work on the table. And that builds some opportunity to share who you are and make some connections.

Tony Lee: It's funny, I have fond memories, I guess, from the first six to 12 months of the pandemic where everybody was having virtual happy hours. Virtual to tell about your vacation gatherings and things like that. And I think they played a role, but they faded away, but nothing seems to have really replaced them. So are you saying that they should be brought back or just other ways that people can connect with one another on a more social basis?

Jennifer Moss: Tony, forced fun is never good. And I write about it in The Burnout Epidemic and I had these kind of great stories from people saying, "We did this yoga gathering with my boss and I'm sweating and bending over in front of my team. And it's humiliating." I think a lot of there is a real kind of despair and managers feeling desperate at what they can do to do team building in this weird new kind of world. And I don't think they worked. I think we have to realize that there's an element of in real life that we do need to figure out how to get, even for remote teams. I know budget to fly people in is very difficult. It's not always a reasonable expectation.

But there's a lot of companies that can bring people together in these real life situations. Volunteering is a great way. Finding out when you are in the office. If we're not creating time for people to have productive relationship building, then again, it's actually making time out and carving out time. That means changing goals, changing expectations. Don't have kind of hangout Fridays and then make everyone work Saturdays and Sundays. So really, again, focus on the inefficiencies that are creating more workload, fix that, give people more time, and then relationships will foster if we give people space to be able to connect.

Tony Lee: Well, so it's interesting talking about space, I mean physical space. We've seen a lot of examples now of companies that used the pandemic to just completely redesign the workplace. And instead of lots of little offices where everyone was alone, they've gone to, cubicle farms is not a happy way to put it, but big open space it. Does that play a role? Is there something that companies should be thinking about there?

Jennifer Moss: Well, I've really loved the work that Susan Cain did with Steelcase and helping employers and leaders understand what is most optimal. And what was discovered is that you can't just have one let's go all back to being in offices and isolated. That doesn't work. That never worked. Well, let's go, "Okay, then let's have these big open spaces where everyone's collaborating." Well, that doesn't work for all people.

It's about having various types of spaces where people can have quiet, where people can gather. If you were on a floor, and there's one company I worked with where they had one floor where there was a lot of remote people and so only a couple people were coming in, but there were other floors that they had that were really busy. So they created these pods up there for anyone that wanted to work in their own role and still have people around. So there was a sense of energy. So there's ways that we can fix that, but again, it's not supposed to be, "Okay, let's just swing the pendulum fully in another direction and that's going to work." It has to be a goldilocks zone where there's all different ways of serving different people.

Tony Lee: So let me pivot a little bit. We're talking about essentially white collar office settings. What about hourly workers? They get lonely too. And they can be in an environment where they're seeing people every day but be depressed, be burned out, be lonely. Any strategies there on a how to help hourly workers feel like they're part of the team, that they belong?

Jennifer Moss: Yeah, I did some research on one group actually of those working in packaging and they were distribution centers. And one of the things that they weren't allowed to do was talk to colleagues on the job because it was inefficient and they needed to just get focused on work. They found that there was more attrition. They found that there was less likelihood of employees staying. So the retention and attrition piece, but also just that they would have low NPS scores, so they would not recommend this job. Just all the data kept showing that these were very unhappy workers. And so then what they found out is that they just want to be able to have a few minutes while they're working or chatting side by side while they're doing the same work and actually engage.

And so they changed their rules on people talking to one another at work. Productivity went through the roof. There was more retention. People were more attracted to the roles. So this idea of removing those relationships for productivity, especially in those folks in the front line or those people that are working not remotely, we need to make sure again, that we're thinking about what really matters to people. And what we really learned I feel like through the pandemic was that our relationship with work has changed. It's not transactional anymore. It's a social contract that has so much more nuance. And so this idea of making it transactional and limiting the human piece of it in all sectors, whether remote or in person, is going to create a lot of dissatisfaction in employees. So that's a big one. And I know in healthcare too, this is a big one where we're seeing, again, unsustainable workload of burnout. And that's playing a big role in people just not, again, having time to have joy. And that's spreading like a contagion across organizations.

Tony Lee: And I guess there're generational issues here. I mean, the traditionalists, older employees are, "That's the way it is. I do my job, I go home, I get my social interaction somewhere else." But Gen Z, young Millennials, they expect it on the job. They expect their employer to encourage belonging and social activity, right?

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. And this is an area that I think strategically leaders really need to pay attention to because again, we kind of have this idea of what hybrid looks like. It's two days in or three days in and whatever, 60/40, or it's fully remote or fully in the office. And what we have to understand is there's certain groups where we exclude if they are working completely remote. And I've had a lot of discussions around this because there's some Gen Zs and Millennials that say, "Absolutely not. Do not take my remote work away. This is what I live for."

But when you look at these, especially in the last couple of years where a lot of these new grads were isolated, they were doing their courses online where you meet a lot of people and you learn how to network and you learn a lot of the functionalities of leadership when you're in person inside of university or college, and then they go into a workplace that's fully remote, how are they learning to manage up? How are they learning to make deals, or negotiate, or deal with conflict, or learn and develop certain skills around human interactions, which are really important.

All of these things you get by those few years of just working your way through learning about people inside of an organization. You cannot do that in the same way remote. So we have to have different ways of addressing the needs of that group because, yeah, I am in my mid-forties and I've had lots of time where I've had those experiences. For me, it feels great to be able to have that remote work, but that doesn't work for everyone.

Tony Lee: And it kind of sounds like empathy plays a big role here. And middle managers are often caught in the squeeze of, "Well, yeah, I want to be empathetic and help, but I've got these goals my department has to make, and my boss is breathing down my back." So it's really kind of senior leadership has to grasp this and be empathetic right?

Jennifer Moss: They play a big role. I mean, you know we've had lots of discussions and I'm always very non-diplomatic around the responsibility that leaders play in this way of working and experience of work. And empathetic leadership is probably, and not probably, it is what I think is the most important skill that the future of work, if you're going to be competitive, you're going to have to have. And any people leader should be pulled out if they're empathetic and really made sure that they are leading within the organization. But we can be developing that because when you look at the reason why people left, and there's great data that the Microsoft Trends Report put out where they said that 41%, yes, of the global workforce was resigning, the biggest takeaway was workload and lack of empathy from my employer. And pay was third.

Used to be that pay was always a reason why people are leaving, but now people are leaving if they have a lack of empathy from their leader. That's a big statement. So we need to realize again, that social contract with work plays into whether you are going to have people stay. And that means listening, active listening, finding out what people need, realize that it's a one-to-one leadership strategy now. It's not just one size fits all, and that's the expectation. And now people will quietly quit, they'll rage apply, they'll resign if we don't give them what they need. And it shouldn't all be one-sided. We have an ecosystem that we have to work together if we're going to solve it. It's everyone coming to work in a very specific way too and want to be there. But leaders play a huge role in whether those employees want to be there.

Tony Lee: That is the last word, I'm happy to say. But thank you so much, Jennifer Moss, for sharing your insights into workplace loneliness and burnout. It's much appreciated. Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to your podcasts. And listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast's visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.