A personal journey to finding the “I” in loneliness

Written by Sarah Benson, Head of Research

I must start this blog with a bit of a confession. I am a forty-two-year-old single Mum, with an almost-four-year-old, amazing family and friends and an exciting career in recruitment, yet I have felt lonely for most of my life.

From the outside, I am confident, mostly outgoing, and a hugely social creature, but despite this, I know now that loneliness has been a defining characteristic in most of my adult life. I always had an overwhelming sense that I was not understood and that I didn’t fit in. To combat this, I became a bit of a people pleaser. I fixated on the idea of being likeable to form connections. I was well and truly disconnected and, in many ways, I had traded my self-worth for fitting in.

At the beginning of 2020, I became a single parent, my daughter was 16 months old. I was also unemployed for the first time in my career. Then the world shut down and we were told to stay at home, I could not see my family or friends and any sense I had of being prepared for being a single parent and the support I had around me just vanished in a heartbeat. Unsurprisingly, In the months that followed, I wrestled with a sense of loneliness like at no other time in my life.

This feeling of loneliness was vital in recognising that my feelings were valid and needed some attention.  Vivek H Murthy writes in his book Together – “it’s clear that loneliness serves a vital function by warning us when something essential for our survival – social connection – is lacking.” Therefore, it is entirely possible to be surrounded by people and yet feel like you are drifting in the ocean a million miles from anyone because there is simply no genuine connection to pull you closer. That is how I describe my experiences now, looking back into that rear-view mirror of life, I can see that in my formative years I was desperately seeking genuine connections and friendships to mask the feeling of loneliness.

The facts remain – I am still a single parent and it’s tough, but as my connection with my daughter continues to deepen and the days have become more connected with other humans – clients and colleagues; as my focus turns from “I wish I had more meaningful relationships in my life” to “what do I need or need to do to shift this feeling of disconnection?” I slowly begin to find my “I” in loneliness.

My route out of Loneliness and the impacts on my self-esteem/happiness; has been to get more connected to myself, to get truly comfortable with being on my own, and to stop filling quiet moments with ‘stuff.’ At the beginning of this year, I set myself some goals I got real clarity on when I became a little bit more connected to my sense of self. Whether it’s reading more books, doing competitive running events, treating myself with kindness and compassion, or setting boundaries that better serve me when it comes to personal relationships, these things have been important vital checkboxes as I get more comfortable with my feelings of loneliness.

Whilst my circle of friends is much smaller these days, they are all very meaningful friendships – a by-product of time/life stage and the pandemic. But it is with great relief that I can finally say that I understand why I have felt chronic loneliness for such a big part of my life. I still have times when I’d rather not spend another evening on my own, but I found a better way to deal with those moments by focusing on forming friendships at work and reflecting on a deep appreciation of my achievements; I can look more hopefully at the future and know that the meaningful connections I have always craved will grow – because I have grown!

How can leaders help support employees with workplace loneliness?

As employers, we must consider how we can support our colleagues to feel as connected as possible, particularly as we continue to adjust to hybrid working and less time is spent in person. After the pandemic, it is no surprise that 97.6% of people want to stay working remotely, but according to S1 Jobs, 20% of employees state that loneliness was the biggest downside to working from home. So, what can managers do to combat loneliness when employees want to work from home?

Create opportunities for meeting

Not being in a physical office makes it harder to get to know your colleagues and form connections, however, if managers place an emphasis on virtual gatherings such as coffee mornings and forming groups outside of your normal teams then this will help overcome remote work loneliness. Be cautious, however, that these gatherings may only get you so far. After all, someone can have hundreds of connections on social media, but still feel lonely. Ensure that you are helping colleagues form connections outside of work as well as during work hours, this will ensure that the relationships that they do form are more fulfilling and valuable.

Encourage employees to make plans

The benefit of flexible hours can go much further than just working from home. Spending less time commuting means people have more time in their day. Encourage employees to make plans in the evenings and use this time to build connections outside of work.  Employees can also benefit from working at least one day per week from outside their own homes for example a lot of pubs are now offering work from the pub packages which include a Wi-Fi-connected space with unlimited coffees all day!

Focus on wellbeing

A Totaljobs study found that one in four men and one in five women have never told anyone about their loneliness. In addition, the research found that 13% did not tell anyone at work about their loneliness because they feared it could harm their career.  It is crucial that leaders break down this bias and learn to prioritise mental well-being by creating a culture that allows employees to speak up about their feelings without feeling judged. Have a flexible and open policy for employees to take the time they need to attend therapy and doctor’s appointments and provide free counselling services for them to ensure that they feel comfortable talking about loneliness.

Introduce Loneliness Champions

Going a step above well-being, having someone within the organisation who has been trained in the key signs of spotting and identifying someone who might be feeling lonely can be an additional support system for employees to engage with confidentially. These Loneliness champions should have special training which will enable them to spot signs and symptoms that a colleague is struggling and are prepared to talk about it in an empathetic and non-judgmental manner. Knowing what the signs of loneliness are and how to help someone overcome this can make a big difference, both personally and professionally to a lot of employees.

If you are looking to learn more about workplace loneliness, we recommend looking through some of the articles below: