- Loneliness is a universal human condition and everyone is susceptible to experience it at work.
- At work, leaders and close colleagues are best positioned to spot workers struggling with loneliness.
- Loneliness is a subjective experience, making it hard to identify at times.
- Still, there are common signs to look for, including changes in routine or a suddenly apathetic attitude.
No one is immune to feeling lonely at work—not even the outgoing top sales associate, the customer success representative that brings her dog into the office, or the charming vice president who always declines every happy hour invitation due to “overcommitments.” Entry-level employees and managers share the same levels of average loneliness.
Since loneliness is a universal human condition and everyone is susceptible to experiencing it at work, it’s crucial that we know how to spot it in others. This is especially important because someone who experiences isolation and loneliness is likely to turn inward, become hypervigilant of personal emotions, and avoid others.
If avoiding loneliness was as easy as telling someone to go to happy hour, call a friend, or get a pet, then over half of workers wouldn't be experiencing loneliness on a weekly basis. Because isolated people turn inward instead of outward for help, it's up to the collective to proactively look for loneliness in others and pull them back into the tribe. In short, we are only as unified as our loneliest team or community members.
How to Spot a Lonely Coworker
At work, leaders and close colleagues are best positioned to spot workers struggling with loneliness. The signs may be subtle, but paying close attention is crucial to building strongly connected and resilient teams.
Here are 10 common identifiers of lonely workers. As an exercise, think of someone on your team you suspect might be feeling lonely. Which of the following applies to that person?
1. Sloppy Work
Careless behaviors, a decrease in work quality, or irresponsibility from a usually dependable worker are indicators of potential loneliness. Sloppy work is a key indicator that people are working with a lessened sense of connection to either the team or their work.
- Missing project deadlines
- Makes uncharacteristic mistakes
- Takes shortcuts with clients or customers
- Delivers incomplete assignments
2. Lack of Learning and Development
Curiosity and a growth mindset are good indicators of employee engagement. When employees are leaning into learning, they show a level of optimism about their future. When they don’t, it could be because they are disengaged or disconnected.
- Limited participation in training
- Disdain for extracurricular activities
- Doesn’t ask questions
- Uninterested in career progression
3. Change in Routine
Engaged employees tend to be reliable, with recognizable routines. Reliable employees whose routines change might be an indicator of a growing sense of isolation.
- Showing up to work late
- Taking extra-long lunches
- Leaving or logging out early
- Working late nights or weekends
4. Stops Offering Input
Feelings of insecurity are associated with loneliness. When workers stop offering suggestions or participating in goal setting, it could be because they do not want to be seen.
- Lack of eye contact during meetings
- Not speaking during meetings
- Doesn’t ask for feedback
- Avoids planning or strategy sessions
5. Skips or Resents Meetings
Lonely people, paradoxically, may avoid others. Not showing up or arriving routinely late to meetings could indicate a disconnected worker. Lonely people can also be hostile to those around them.
- Not apologizing for being late
- Keeping camera off during video meetings
- Being disgruntled during meetings
- Quick to anger while among others
6. Only Talks Work
Lonely workers are often unwilling to talk about non-work-related items. Only talking about work is a signal that someone isn’t interested in developing connections.
- Does not talk about hobbies
- Shies away from discussing personal topics
- Wary to engage in small talk
- Deflects any non-work-related questions
7. Limited Interaction with Coworkers
Absent on communication platforms, long delays between communications, or avoiding small work gatherings are indicators that a worker might feel isolated.
- Avoids joining special interest workgroups
- Eats lunch at desk
- Lack of curiosity in others
- Short responses during conversations
8. An Apathetic Attitude
An unwillingness to present or defend ideas, fulfill commitments, or be accountable can be a sign of loneliness. Lonely people often demonstrate more negativity.
- Passive approach to work
- Low energy levels
- Somber demeanor
- Disinterested in serving customers
9. Unkempt Appearance
A disorderly workspace or appearance can be an indication of an indifference to establishing connections with fellow workers.
- Disheveled clothes
- Ungroomed appearance
- A messy desk or cluttered workspace
- Recurring outfits
10. Excessive Working
Just as disconnecting from work could be a sign of loneliness, spending too much time working as a way to avoid personal responsibilities can point to an imbalance in social relationships. Taking on too much work can be leveraged as an excuse to avoid professional and personal social interactions.
- Volunteering for too many projects
- Piling up vacation days
- Returning emails late at night
- Hurrying from meeting to meeting
Loneliness is a subjective experience, so there are no hard-and-fast rules about what it looks like. Many people may hide their feelings for fear of embarrassment, or because they don’t want to appear weak. This can make loneliness difficult to identify. As a member of a team, your best approach is to take the time to get to know and really understand others. This will help you to recognize when someone is feeling disconnected or left out by the rest of the team.
Learn more in "10 Signs of a Lonely Workforce" interactive checklist and recommendation guide.
Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen (2022). Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All In. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Education.