How to Feel Less Lonely at Work

Noemi J. Mullins

It makes sense that many of us expect to make friends at work. When you consider how much time most people spend on the job and the fact there are generally overlapping interests among coworkers, it’s easy to assume that friendships–or at least friendly, casual connections–will come quickly. But it can be more complicated. According to research from the University of Pittsburgh, three out of five American workers feel lonely or disconnected from their colleagues.

The pandemic certainly contributed to this, the researchers say. It dramatically changed how we work; many people work from home full-time or in a hybrid situation that balances office and remote hours. Many companies have also become more comfortable hiring people in different cities and time zones. Even for people who have returned to in-person work–or never left it–it might still feel as though something has fundamentally shifted when it comes to coworker interactions, thanks, in part, to years of social distancing. And if you’re already dealing with isolation and loneliness, working in an environment where you don’t click with your coworkers only exacerbates those difficult feelings.

“Loneliness can feel different for different people, depending on the context they’re working in,” Michelle Lim, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, loneliness researcher, and co-director of The Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection, tells SELF. “For the most part, it occurs when people don’t feel like people understand them or that, even though they have people around, they don’t have anyone they can talk to or turn to when they have problems.”

Not surprisingly, that sense of disconnection can take a toll on your mental well-being. For example, a 2022 study found that workplace loneliness in hotel employees resulted in emotional exhaustion and a desire to be psychologically detached from their jobs to recover after shifts. Feeling isolated at your job could also be better from a career perspective. Research published in 2018 in the Academy of Management Journal found that greater workplace loneliness was related to lower job performance and that lonely employees felt less committed to their jobs.

You’re not alone if this sounds like something you can relate to right now. According to Dr. Lim, there is always time to connect with the people around you, especially if you want to change. “Loneliness isn’t necessarily bad because it’s a prompt to do something different,” she says. Here are some strategies to try if you’re feeling lonely at work.

Start by finding small ways to interact with your coworkers.

Most workplaces won’t ever be as social as a college dorm, but even small social interactions can help alleviate your sense of isolation. “You don’t have to have a friend to feel less lonely,” says Dr. Lim. “For someone incredibly lonely but nervous about meeting people, for example, it can be about smiling or nodding at someone instead of saying hello. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to connect.”

It might not seem like much, but this approach to socializing–with a wave when walking through the door or a “good morning” in the elevator–can be a helpful way to start building a new habit that can eventually bring you closer to your coworkers, Dr. Lim says. For people who work in the gig economy without colleagues to keep them company, these interactions could include a quick chat with a customer or another worker in passing.

Suppose you need to figure out where to start regarding small talk. In that case, it can be helpful to remember that everyone generally has something in common with their coworkers, according to Rachel Morrison, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the Auckland University of Technology who specializes in interpersonal relationships in the workplace. “By definition, a workplace should be filled with people similar to you,” Dr. Morrison tells SELF. “They have a similar career and go to the same workplace. Those two elements–similarity and proximity–mean that friendship should be possible.” It’s a sentiment shared by Dr. Lim, who says small talk is about getting to know someone a little more, so you can find out if you have a shared experience or similar interest.

In practice, that might look like commenting on someone’s laptop wallpaper of their dog or asking what leftovers they’re heating in the microwave, allowing you to bond over something you love–even if it is just an obsession with corgis or a passion for Vietnamese food. If you’re working remotely, joining a Zoom meeting a minute or two early to chat with whoever is on the call about their weekend or upcoming vacation (and keeping your camera turned on) can also help build familiarity with the people you work with, Dr. Morrison says.

Then, look for opportunities to open up a little more.

When looking back on workplace relationships in your past, there’s a good chance some of your strongest came about after bonding over a shared experience, which led you to open up more than you usually would at work. For example, you worked through a company-wide restructure, put in long hours side by side, or traveling to a conference, then spent hours at the airport together waiting for a delayed flight. “Quite often, there are these seminal and intense experiences that bring people together at work,” Dr. Morrison explains.

You can’t force these circumstances, but you can find ways to show more of your authentic self to your coworkers if you want to, creating opportunities to connect on a deeper level. Of course, when you’re feeling isolated in a workplace, sharing your real feelings can be easier said than done. “Opening up can be hard when you’re lonely because you might go into an unconscious shut-down–when you’re lonely, you’re often more scared of getting rejected,” says Dr. Lim. If you’re feeling nervous, start small: Share a tidbit about a gripping TV show you and another coworker are watching, or express a minor work frustration you’re struggling with, like a particularly fiddly setting on your video chat.

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