Ananda Zeas-Sig?enza, MSc, Public University of Navarre. Pablo Ruisoto, PhD, Public University of Navarre.
The objective of this study was to provide a systematic review of the relation between loneliness and workplace.
Loneliness emerges from a perceived relational deficit, i.e., a subjective discrepancy between the individual?s desire and his/her actual interpersonal relationships (Perlman & Peplau, 1982). Loneliness at work is an emotional distress triggered by the perception of lacking significant social connections at work/organization (Wright et al., 2006). Social connection is characterized by being a source of structural, functional and quality support via caring social networks (Holt-Lunstad, 2018) including working environments. Numerous adults spend more waking hours at work than at home; thus, counting on meaningful connections at work could be a pivotal factor (Holt-Lunstad, 2018). Loneliness has been associated with less productivity (Laschinger et al., 2010), job stress and decreased wellbeing (Lim et al., 2008). Loneliness at work is experienced by people from all organizational levels where 50% of CEOs reported feeling lonely (Saportino, 2012) and more than 60% of nearly 10,000 respondents of all organizational levels reported feeling alone at work (Maimai Data Research Institute, 2017). Although loneliness at work is increasing and has recently become an important factor in organizational environments (Ozcelik and Barsade, 2018), its impact on different aspects of work settings remains understudied.
A thorough systematic review was conducted following the guidelines of the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA). For data collection process, searches were made using Web of Science using ?loneliness?, ?perceived social isolation? and ?workplace?, ?work environment? as the main keywords in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The total estimated sample at baseline was 103 which were screened using the following eligibility criteria (1) keyworks appeared in the title and/or the abstract as well as keywords, (2) Full texts published in English, Spanish, and/or Portuguese in the last 5 years. All selected articles were analyzed based on their sample (number of participants, sex, workplace), study design, measurement of loneliness and main outcome variables in the study (health-related and/or productivity). A total of 30 articles met the criteria, which gave a total of 27,975 participants. For a detailed PRISMA flow chart of the literature review, see Figure 1.
In general, analyses evidenced a tendency in the samples being composed mainly by female participants (average 54.6%), and only one study had a male sample. Another tendency found, is that studies mainly have a cross-sectional approach (80%) rather than a longitudinal (16.6%) and mainly correlational (96.6%) rather than experimental (3.3%). Results were divided into four categories: loneliness and health-related outcomes in the work environment with cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches (Table 1 & 2) and loneliness and productivity outcomes in the work environment with cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches (Table 3 & 4). Table 1. Loneliness and health-related outcomes in the work environment, cross-sectional approach. In sum, low and middle-level positions are the most studied population by correlational approach. Regarding health-related outcomes, the most assessed factors are mental health status, stress and well-being. Unsurprisingly, loneliness is one of the most important stressors at work and the strongest predictor of mental health problems and vulnerability. Table 2. Loneliness and health-related outcomes in the work environment, longitudinal approach. In sum, leadership positions are the most studied population by longitudinal approach. Regarding health-related outcomes, the most assessed factors are cognitive decline, mood changes, work-alienation, decreased well-being, and low self-esteem which all are negatively related to loneliness. Table 3. Loneliness and productivity outcomes in the work environment, cross-sectional approach. Although there is a variety of populations studied under this approach, the most addressed are health and university professionals. The most assessed factors are job performance, organizational engagement, trust in leaders and relationships managements which are worsened by loneliness. Table 4. Loneliness and productivity outcomes in the work environment, longitudinal approach. To summarize, leader-team relationships are the most studied population by longitudinal approach low and middle-level positions are the most studied population by longitudinal approach. Factors most assessed are trusting, turn over intentions, job performance, organizational commitment and a mentoring program. All are negatively related to loneliness.
The current review examined the impact of loneliness at work. Evidence indicates that more studies are needed regarding this matter. A major difference between longitudinal and correlational approaches is that the former assesses mainly leader-team relationships. Such approach might be due to the dynamical nature of relationships; thus, they need follow-ups to elucidate their behaviour. Results are in aligned with previous findings (Hawkley et al., 2012) and demonstrated that loneliness is an important social stressor and predictor of mental health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). This could be explained by the vicious loneliness loop (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009) where lonely individuals feel lonelier when experiencing failed attempts of connecting. Loneliness has an important impact on job performance, quality of life, wellbeing, trusting in leaders, and increasing turnover intentions adding evidence to previous results (Laschinger et al., 2010; Lim et al., 2008). Following previous studies (Lim et al., 2020) social relationships and feeling part of a social perimeter diminishes loneliness levels at work. Thus, lonely workers might lack useful resources such as social capital at workplace. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 restrictions have enhanced such deleterious effects. Future loneliness-reduction based interventions at work should include awareness strategies about the importance of loneliness at work; determining its prevalence; promoting relationships and cooperation between colleagues and social relationships outside the work environment. Furthermore, as loneliness is a (social) stressor, training on how to manage emotions and social relationships should also be included. Although we found a correlation between loneliness and workplace factors, some of the limitations were that little studies address a causal relationship, study criteria are diverse and gender differences are barely addressed. Organizations should address loneliness at work towards organizational health.
Loneliness at work is a strong predictor of both productivity and health in the work environment.