In the Age of Isolation

Sacramento State professor says lonely employees are hurting your business’ bottom line

Back Longreads Apr 23, 2019 By Jeff Wilser

Imagine your boss asking you these questions:

How often do you feel you have nobody to talk to?  
How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others? 
How often do you feel as if nobody really understands you?

These aren’t just hypothetical. In 1978, psychologists at UCLA asked 20 questions like these to create the Loneliness Scale, giving birth to a new field of research. Over the next few decades, loneliness has been linked to higher risks of stress, dementia, cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation and strokes. Loneliness can kill — a 2015 study from Brigham Young University called it as damaging to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

It’s tricky to quantify exactly how loneliness has changed over time, but we do know it’s not rare. Nearly half (46 percent) of adult Americans view themselves as lonely, according to a 20,000-person 2018 survey from Cigna, which used UCLA’s Loneliness Scale. The percentage of people living alone has nearly doubled from 1967 to 2017 (from 7.6 percent to 14.3 percent, according to census data), and the number of people who say they have no close friends tripled from 1984 to 2004, according to a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy calls it a “loneliness epidemic,” and suggests that loneliness should be targeted with a public outreach campaign in the same way we do with cigarettes and obesity, and last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Could loneliness make us worse at our jobs? At Sacramento State, a researcher and professor of management, Hakan Ozcelik, has been puzzling over this question for the last decade. In 2007, he was surprised to find that no one had tackled loneliness in the workplace. “From a research perspective, it was like finding a goldmine,” he says, chuckling a bit. (Ozcelik is an unlikely expert of loneliness; his voice is chronically cheery, and he seems always on the verge of a joke.) 

So Ozcelik took the UCLA Loneliness Scale and adapted it for the workplace, and has been studying the intersection between loneliness and work for over a decade. This is a complicated field with a jumble of interrelated variables, yet Ozcelik’s work offers insights into how loneliness, and the perception of loneliness, affects us in the workplace. His research, originally published in the Academy of Management Journal last year and the results of which he and his research partner wrote about for Harvard Business Review, suggests that savvy CEOs should make addressing loneliness a priority, and that the solutions aren’t as simple as adding more Taco Tuesdays.

The Lonely Mind

Let’s start by debunking some myths about loneliness. You can be lonely even when surrounded by people, and you can be alone without feeling lonely. And a touch of loneliness can actually be useful. Think of it as a warning light on your car’s dashboard, telling you that something is wrong. “It’s a very functional emotion,” says Ozcelik. “It’s a very primal drive. It goes back to our ancestors in the wilderness. We’re programmed to be part of a group, because if you’re not, you’re not safe.” 

“It’s a very primal drive. … 
We’re programmed to be part 
of a group, because if you’re 
not, you’re not safe.”
- Hakan Ozcelik, 
professor of management, Sacramento State

Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor at University of Chicago who focuses on psychology and neuroscience, explains loneliness as “a state of mind.” It is a subjective feeling that can come and go. “You can be not lonely one day, and then lonely the next,” says Cacioppo. “You wake up and everything else is the same — you still have the same job. The furniture hasn’t moved. What’s different? Your brain.” 

Loneliness is a perception gap between how connected we think we should feel and how connected we actually feel, experts say.  So when we see hundreds of online friends doing fabulous and Instagrammable things, we’re more likely to feel the pang of lonely disappointment. As Cacioppo says, “Social media is not helping us feel more social.”

Cacioppo describes a specific region of the brain that facilitates relationships with others as the “social brain network.” When you are lonely, certain communication-friendly zones of the brain shut down, such as the temporo-parietal junction, which helps us see the world from others’ perspectives — crucial to communication. At the same time, other zones of the brain become hyperactive, such as the visual cortex, which helps us sniff out threats. So with the “lonely brain,” as she describes, “you’re going to be alert at all times, like a super bodyguard. You’re going to see more negative information than positive.”

Cacioppo gives an example: If you’re lonely, let’s say you meet a colleague that you have known for years. They look the same and they act the same. “But if you’re lonely,” says Cacioppo, “when you look at their face and see their eyebrow raised, you might think they’re mocking you.” You misinterpret their body language. “So in a business negotiation … if the person is lonely, you can forget about a deal for the day.”

The Lonely Office Space

So does this “lonely brain” impact our ability to get things done at work? Ozcelik and his study co-author, Sigal Barsade of Wharton University of Pennsylvania, took UCLA’s Loneliness Scale and tweaked it for the workplace, asking employees to agree or disagree with statements such as, “There is no one I can turn to in this organization.” For their “laboratory” they used two large organizations in Sacramento — both a private company (in tech services) and a public municipality, which ensured a broad range of professions. Their study spanned 672 employees across 143 work groups that included engineers, truck drivers, managers and top-level executives. 

Ozcelik and Barsade isolated two key variables: loneliness and job performance. Levels of loneliness were determined through self-assessments (using a modified UCLA Loneliness Scale) and peer-assessments (asking people if their coworker “seems to be lonely at work”). Productivity was measured by a top-down analysis of managers evaluating staff. Ozcelik found a “strong correlation” between the two, even after controlling for other variables like age, gender, education and organizational tenure (though notably 
not compensation). 

The lonelier the employee, the worse he or she performed. Specifically, the “effect size” — a measure that statisticians use to gauge the impact of one variable on another — was 0.3, meaning that the impact was, in plain English, “medium to high.” And it wasn’t due to chance. Yet was it casual? That’s a higher bar for researchers to hurdle. They time-lagged the study, meaning that they first measured loneliness, and then job-performance six weeks later. “We cannot confirm causality,” Ozcelik and Barsade caution in the study. “There is a possibility, for example, that poorer performance leads employees to be isolated from their coworkers, leading to greater loneliness, although we would argue that the preponderance of past theory and empirical work operates in the other direction.”

Ozcelik attributes the drop in performance to two distinct mechanisms. The first is anchored around the psychological theory of “social exchange.” In the Sacramento study, they also measured employees’ “affective commitment” to an organization. (Do they feel emotionally connected to the group?) Lonelier employees were less engaged.

Imagine that you work for a company with 10,000 employees, where you feel alienated from the eight coworkers in your department. As Ozcelik explains it, “Simply because those eight people are not close to you, you start to feel, No one here likes me. So then you think, I don’t feel close to this entire company.” Thanks to the social exchange theory, you tend to reciprocate the negative vibes, in something of a quid pro quo. “You start thinking that, If I don’t get anything out of this relationship, I’m not going to give much in return, either.” You don’t work as hard. Your performance suffers. This, in turn, impacts others, as “we catch emotions like a virus,” says Barsade. “Loneliness is influencing their colleagues.”   

The second mechanism: Lonely people are perceived to be less approachable, and therefore their relationships suffer. “Lonely people don’t have the network around them to get the job done,” Ozcelik says. “For example, they might have a great idea, but they need other people’s input, and they can’t get it.” 

Curious about this dynamic, Ozcelik then hatched a follow-up experiment to tease out why, exactly, lonely people weren’t getting the help they needed. This time he turned to neuroscience. Ozcelik and his team found a group of 20 volunteers, showing them photos of hypothetical coworkers with descriptors like, “an employee who has no one to turn to in the organization” or someone who “feels in tune with coworkers in the organization.” Ozcelik left the L-word out of the descriptions, and “lonely” descriptions were not paired with “lonely” faces. 

Volunteers mulled over the question, “Do I help this person?” while Ozcelik used an fMRI to scan their brains. He noticed something fascinating. When considering a non-lonely coworker, two areas of the participants’ brains flared to life on the fMRI: the amygdala and hippocampus, which help govern our memories and emotion. “Lonely” descriptors did not trigger any activity in these areas. Translation? “It’s like the lonely person is invisible,” says Ozcelik, his voice brimming with excitement. “It’s not that we hate the lonely person. It’s that the lonely person doesn’t even register in our brains.” Perhaps in the same way that we quickly walk past a homeless person on the street, we simply choose to ignore a lonely coworker.  

Lonely at the Top

Loneliness might be an equal-opportunity problem. While the Sacramento study (of just two organizations) was too small to draw conclusions about CEOs, a 2011 survey from RHR International (a leadership consulting firm) found that half of all CEOs are lonely, and that of that group, 61 percent say it impacts their performance. So there could be some truth in the old saw, “It’s lonely at the top.”

Sacramento-based executive coach Barrett McBride says that among her clients, “The more senior the executive, the more likely they are to bring up loneliness,” theorizing that “the higher people rise in an organization, the fewer peers they have to discuss issues that arise.”

For these lonely CEOs and C-suiters, McBride recommends that they seek peers and mentors, both inside and outside the organization. She also suggests philanthropy. “Find a giving outlet that takes you outside of yourself, and provides a service for the greater good,” says McBride.

On top of the usual warm-and-fuzzy benefits of giving back, Barrett says this will help the lonely employee develop new social networks, which improves their connectedness “more holistically.” 

As for how managers should tackle the loneliness of others? Ozcelik and company are still in the early days of developing solutions, but do have some guidance. First: Don’t think the answer is more group lunches or happy hours. “The last thing you want to do to help lonely employees is to organize more social functions,” says Ozcelik. “They’ll feel even more miserable.” This goes back to the perception gap Cacioppo discusses, between the connections they think they should have compared to what they actually feel. Lonely people will think that everyone is having a great time at the picnic, and they’re not.

Another tempting solution: Stick Lonely Bob with Lonely Nancy, so that each of them will now have a friend. This is almost certainly doomed. “If you put two lonely people together, they’re going to hate each other after a few minutes,” cautions Cacioppo.  

One thing that could actually help, as simplistic as this sounds, is to just be nicer. In the Sacramento workplace experiment, Ozcelik and Barsade also examined the “emotional culture” of the workplace. “If a lonelier person is in a culture of higher compassion and love, that helps to reduce the negative effect on commitment,” says Barsade. “Even if you feel lonely, if you’re fundamentally surrounded by kind and affectionate people, this is a tide that raises all boats.”

Ozcelik suggests that since there is a clear link to job performance and lonely employees become less engaged, managers actively monitor loneliness. “This will require some institutional efforts,” he says, such as folding this into HR procedures. He advises something of a routine (and voluntary) “loneliness check,” where the employee is asked questions like, How often do you feel as if no one understands you? 

Since the earlier takeaway of Ozcelik’s research is that lonely people are effectively invisible in the office, he recommends activities that will put them with a positive light. Don’t just do a random Taco Tuesday, but instead celebrate the success of all employees, and provide everyone an opportunity to showcase their non-work personality. The point is to both change how coworkers view the lonely person (making him or her less invisible) and short-circuit the negative cycle 
of loneliness.

“If you’re a smart manager, 
don’t just say, ‘It’s not my 
problem, talk to your shrink.’ 
It’s not a personal problem. It’s 
a managerial problem.”
- Hakan Ozcelik, 
professor of management, Sacramento State

In December 2018 Ozcelik asked Sacramento State business students to brainstorm how managers could help lonely employees, based on his above guidelines. He had them act out the ideas and film short videos, and then he shared the skits with attendants at the College of Business Administration’s annual film festival. Most of the ideas had one common factor: giving the lonely employee more interesting responsibilities, and casting them in a positive light. “This helps them think, Hey, you know what, I’m not that much of a loser. I can actually contribute. I can do something for this organization.” (Meanwhile, Cacioppo is developing a packaged program to help organizations combat loneliness, and her team is testing it with the U.S. Army. She hopes to have it ready for roll-out later this year.) 

More than anything, Ozcelik wants to see more of a conversation about loneliness. All of us get lonely from time to time. And none of us talk about it. “If you’re a smart manager, don’t just say, ‘It’s not my problem, talk to your shrink,’” says Ozcelik. “It’s not a personal problem. It’s a managerial problem.”