Loneliness in the Workplace: How Gen Z Is Feeling the Pinch
- By Ani Banerjee, KnowBe4
- July 18, 2023
As droves of workers were driven out of physical workplaces in March 2020, a new workplace dynamic quickly took root, leaving many employees without the kind of person-to-person interactions they had grown accustomed to without giving it a thought.
Today many employees continue to work remotely or in a hybrid office-home mix. Employees new to the workforce during the pandemic, in fact, may never have had the experience of working in the exact location with their colleagues.
What impact does this have on their satisfaction with work and life?
Loneliness in Today’s Work World
McKinsey & Company is one organization that has sounded the warning bell on the implications of hybrid and remote work on Generation Z. Their research revealed 68% of the Gen Z population indicate fewer work friendships since the pandemic, pointing out that 81% of those under 35 fear the loneliness that long-term remote work is likely to usher in.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an alarming advisory in May 2023, calling out an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States.”
Lack of social connection can have serious negative consequences for physical health. Socially isolated people are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and dementia. They are also 60% more likely to die prematurely. The Surgeon General has called social isolation an "underappreciated public health crisis," urging public health advocates to take steps to address this issue.
In work settings, feelings of loneliness can have additional troubling impacts—and Gen Z is particularly feeling the pinch.
Born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s, many members of Gen Z entered the workforce or were new to the workforce just as the pandemic emerged. This has provided them with a notably distinct work experience that has arguably presented fewer opportunities for peer interaction and socialization.
Unlike previous generations, many of these employees want to return to the office.
Taking a Trip Back to the Office
While older generations may point to the positive impact that hybrid and remote work has had on work-life balance, for younger workers, that balance has been "out of whack" and shifting to less balance from a work perspective.
To achieve work-life balance, a trip back to the office makes smart sense to younger workers.
A Joblist study finds that 57% of Gen Z workers want to return to the office. Only 27% say they would be interested in a remote option, compared to 49% for millennials and 40% for Gen X and baby boomers.
That may bode well for those employers who prefer employees to be in the physical work environment. Many are, in fact, calling them back. The number of businesses with staff onsite “most of the time” has almost achieved pre-pandemic levels.
But with wide-ranging opinions and preferences among the generations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that savvy employers—and those that want to continue to attract and retain top talent—will have to provide flexibility and balance.
What is the ideal home-to-office work ratio? Many arguments for staying at home bode well, including childcare and elder care, tight household budgets, and avoiding painful commuting and high fuel prices. However, compelling reasons are driving some back to physical workspaces—including the opportunity to seek out social opportunities afforded by office breakrooms and parties and the chance to make close friends, study under a mentor, or even find a life-long partner.
The Critical Importance of Socialization
Where do people tend to make friends after they’ve moved beyond high school and college? Many are found in the workplace. Those friendships can benefit both employees and employers.
Gallup research discovered a direct link between employee engagement and business outcomes when they introduced their Q12 survey—a 12-item survey based on input from more than 2.7 million employees across more than 100,000 teams. Gallup found that organizations with highly engaged employees consistently outperform those with low engagement. One of the top 12 drivers helping companies assess the engagement of staff members: having a “best friend” at work. Friendships, in fact, keep people on the job.
There are several things organizations can do to help minimize loneliness and build social connections, such as:
- Foster a work culture that values diversity, inclusivity, and open communication, encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and mutual support.
- Develop mentoring or a buddy program, pairing experienced employees with members of Gen Z.
- Encourage social interactions through team-building activities, outside events, and spaces where employees can come together to socialize.
- Establish employee resource groups (ERGs) to unite employees with shared interests and backgrounds.
- Implement communication tools and platforms to facilitate interactions wherever employees may be.
- Offer mental health support and resources.
- Seek feedback regularly, pay heed to it, and make changes to address identified barriers or gaps.
Organizations have an opportunity to help employees find the social connections they crave—whether they’re onsite or remote—fostering the kind of “culture of connection” the Surgeon General says can help address loneliness and create greater social cohesion. How? By recognizing that socialization matters and proactively seeking opportunities to help employees connect—wherever they are.
Ani Banerjee, chief human resources officer at KnowBe4, provider of the world's largest security awareness training and simulated phishing platform used by 60,000 organizations, wrote this article.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/Caiaimage/Martin Barraud