Does Loneliness Matter At Workplace?


By Fang Ying

Previous research tells us loneliness can make us sick and depressed. However, does loneliness affect our work performance as well? A study by CUHK Business School reveals the impacts of loneliness at the workplace.

Comparing with their non-lonely counterparts, lonely employees will experience lower quality exchanges with their bosses and supervisors and with the organization and they will tend to be worse in carrying out their duties at workplace. This is the finding of a study[1] conducted by Dora Lau Chi-sun, associate professor at the Department of Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, and Rico Lam Long-wai, professor at the Department of Management of the University of Macau.

The study evaluates the impact of workplace loneliness on employees’ work performance. According to the researchers, prior research has shown that loneliness, which defined as insufficient or unsatisfactory social relationships, can produce a variety of ill effects, such as anxiety and depression, while little research has been conducted on loneliness under the work context.

“We know very little whether and how loneliness at workplace affects employee’s attitudes and behaviors,” says Prof. Lam. “It’s an important issue to explore since insufficient social connection can have critical consequences at workplace.”

The Study

For the purpose of this study, the researchers investigated the state of workplace loneliness of 532 schoolteachers in 18 public and private schools in Macau by distributing questionnaires to them.

At the same time, another set of questionnaires was sent to the teachers’ supervisors, including vice principals, heads of department and subject heads, to provide rating on schoolteachers’ work performance.

According to the researchers, schoolteachers can experience loneliness at work because they work independently rather than in teams. In school, every teacher has his or her own class schedule and is responsible for different subjects. Teachers in Macau usually need to use their non-teaching time to grade student assignments and may have little time for social interactions with colleagues, explains Prof. Lam.

The researchers offered different measurement scales for respondents to measure these variables: state of loneliness, in-role performance, and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), which can be interpreted as extra-role behaviors, leader-member exchange (LMX), which is used to measure the quality of supervisor-subordinate relationship, and organization-member exchange (OMX) which is used to gauge the exchange quality between organization and employee.

In the questionnaire, for example, a sample item for the state of loneliness is: “At work, people are around me but not with me”; for in-role performance: “Adequately completes assigned duties and fulfill responsibilities specified in job description”; for OCB: “Goes out of his or her way to help new employees”; for LMX: “Regardless of how much formal authority he or she is, my supervisor would ‘bail me out’ at his/her expense”; and for OMX: “I try to look out for the best interest of the organization because I can rely on it to take care of me.”

The participating teachers were asked to rate how often they felt lonely at the workplace on a 4-point scale: never, rarely, sometimes or often. Except for workplace loneliness, all the above variables were measured on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

Important Findings

The study finds that workplace loneliness is negatively related to employees’ in-role performance and extra-role behavior.

“Lonely individuals tend to have poor self-evaluation and low social skills, which leads to their unwillingness to seek new social relationships,” says Prof. Lau.

In addition to poor self-image, prior research shows that lonely individuals tend to hold negative views of others and suspect other’s intentions. They are more likely to see others as less trustworthy than their non-lonely counterparts.

So in the workplace, according to the authors, lonely employees are less able to establish social exchange relationships in organizations due to their unwillingness to take risk and low trust on others. However, social exchange is associated with higher levels of job performance and extra-role behaviors, so lonely employees may not spend as much effort achieving organizational goals as their non-lonely counterparts. Hence, they reduce their levels of in-role performance and extra-role behaviors, comparing with their non-lonely counterparts.

Apart from the relationship between loneliness and employees’ work performance, the study further reveals that the social relationships with supervisors and organizations have mediating effects on employees’ work performance.

To be specific, the supervisor-subordinate relationship quality mediates the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and employees’ extra-role behavior, whereas organization-employee exchange quality mediates the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and employees’ in-role performance.

Why is that the case? According to the research, employees generally exchange with two types of partners: supervisors or leaders and the employing organization.

Under high-quality exchange, both employees and supervisors engage in a social exchange relationship characterized by respect, trust and mutual obligations and subordinates may receive more job resources, such as emotional support, performance feedback and job autonomy from their supervisors, which motive them to work better. Also, such employees are more likely to assume tasks requiring more effort and greater responsibility. By contrast, subordinates with low-quality exchange with their supervisors lack relevant job resources and do not initiate social exchanges to conserve their limited resources. Consequently, these lonely employees are less motivated to engage in extra-role behaviors and provide above-average performance.

The same goes for the relationship between employee and organization. Lonely employees tend to see others as less trustworthy and are less willing to participate in social exchanges with employing organizations. Therefore, they receive fewer resources from their employing organizations. However, these organizational resources and support are conducive to employees performing well on their jobs. The lack of such resources implies that, even though lonely employees may be willing to perform well on job, they are less able to do so comparing with non-lonely employees.

“The lack of high-quality social exchange relationships, constrained lonely employees from receiving valuable support and resources from their supervisors and organizations, which leads to their poor performance,” says Prof. Lam.

Managerial Implications

As one of the first to document the effects of workplace loneliness on employee work performance, the study has practical implications for managers who would like to leverage the findings to motive their staff members, according to the researchers.

For example, to minimize the adverse effects of workplace loneliness, companies should encourage their supervisors to establish quality relationships with their employees, providing sufficient peer support to them. With high-quality relationships between supervisors and employees, companies can then expect employees to take extra work tasks and to perform extra-role behaviors such as mentoring new employees and offering suggestions to supervisors.

In the example of schoolteachers, their in-role performance is related to classroom instructions and student activities, whereas their extra-role performance is related to activities outside the classroom. The primary objective of schools is to attract quality students and to provide them a well-rounded education. “So when schools are able to develop high-quality relationships with teachers, teachers may reciprocate by devoting more effort on teaching and student activities,” the authors say.

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[1]Lam, L. & Lau, D. (2012). Feeling lonely at work: investigating the consequences of unsatisfactory workplace relationships. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23(20), 4265-4284. DOI: 10.1080/09585912.2012.665070.


Got any comments, insights or questions? Post them here to further discuss the topic:



K. Si
1/19/2017 10:59:09 PM
On the other hand, the problem of workplace loneliness is insidious because it is hard for people to admit that they are lonely, especially at workplace. Saying that I feel lonely at workplace may seem inappropriate to some people. Therefore, another thing that managers should do is to acknowledge the existence or prevalent of this problem among the employees, thereby they would feel easier to speak out.
K. Si
1/19/2017 10:52:27 PM
Therefore, I guess what a wise manager should do is to create a corporate culture that eliminates people's biased beliefs regarding workplace relationship. A first step in doing so might be simple: when gathering or having lunch together. Try to lead the employees not to only talk about work. Talk more about daily affairs so colleagues feel more like real friends who are just working together.
K. Si
1/19/2017 10:49:26 PM
I think a more positive way of solving workplace loneliness lies in increasing people's valuation of their relationships at the workplace. That is, many people invest too little in workplace relationships because they believe that these relationships are short-lived and involve too much interest conflicts.
1/19/2017 11:25:37 AM
How loneliness influences people’s behavior may also depend on whether they adopt a passive or active interpersonal role. When adopting active role, people may be more capable of appropriate and effective social behaviors than we thought.
1/19/2017 11:21:59 AM
Besides the interesting findings in this article, I remember some research talked about the relationship between loneliness and social monitoring. Although some research documented social skill deficits in lonely people, another research concluded lonely people may actually enhance rather than reduce social monitoring.
1/19/2017 11:18:19 AM
Loneliness is an undesirable feeling of social isolation. Sometimes it is not directly related to the actual number of social interactions. What really matters may be the quality of social interactions.
1/3/2017 9:26:49 PM
Furthermore, as suggested by the authors, because of the reciprocity nature of social relations, companies could encourage their supervisors to establish quality relationships with their employees, providing sufficient peer support to them to minimize the adverse effects of workplace loneliness.
1/3/2017 9:24:58 PM
Loneliness is the lack of the social relations and the lack of the fulfillment of the need to belong. If organizations could build a culture or climate for inclusion, which can help fulfill the needs of self-worth and belongingness, the employees will get less feeling of loneliness.
1/3/2017 9:23:20 PM
The professors said that“So when schools are able to develop high-quality relationships with teachers, teachers may reciprocate by devoting more effort on teaching and student activities,” It showed the reciprocity nature of the social relationship.
12/25/2016 10:55:18 PM
The perception of loneliness is a dispositional difference in individuals. So we can’t rule out that some employees prefer to work alone. It doesn’t mean they are incompetent, but just they prefer different ways to work. Thus, in some instances, we need to respect different needs too.
12/25/2016 10:54:54 PM
Loneliness is one kind of self-perception, thus, it is difficult for others to diagnose. In organizations, those lonely employees may not realize the need to seek help from others. So it is easier for coworkers to find out lonely employees and provide immediate help to them.
12/25/2016 10:54:30 PM
Nowadays, less and less jobs are completed by individuals, but by teams or collaborations between different individuals, thus, social interaction skills are becoming more and more important. We could tell, not just for school teachers. Many other jobs require employees to have social skills.
K. Si
12/23/2016 12:28:20 PM
Work-family relationship may also affect workplace loneliness. If one person has good relationships with his or her family members and friends, he or she may not tend to feel lonely even if he or she has only a few friends at work. Those negative consequences of workplace loneliness as shown in the current research,might, therefore, be attributed to a bigger problem of personality and general wellbeing. This needs the attention of both the organizations and the whole society.
K. Si
12/23/2016 12:24:56 PM
I think that increasing communications among coworkers is only one way to reduce workplace loneliness. Moreover, it might not be the optimal way, as simply increasing communications among coworkers may also bring some unexpected negative consequences such as the formation of groups and therefore more severe social exclusions.
K. Si
12/23/2016 12:21:08 PM
Workplace loneliness is indeed a problem. But I guess it might be a consequence of many complex factors. For example, it may depend on organizational culture, the nature of the work, the level of competition among coworkers, and the payment system of the organization.
12/22/2016 10:41:57 PM
The feeling of loneliness may change people's thinking styles in general. For example, feeling socially isolated, lonely people are more sensitive and pay more attention to social cues than nonlonely people. They have a strong desire for social connection and are more socially anxious. They also have better memory of information related to social relationships.
12/22/2016 10:39:31 PM
Although online communication technologies and social network services have developed rapidly, people are feeling more and more lonely on average than two decades ago. The antecedents and consequences are becoming more and more important in both psychology research and applied research such as management and marketing.
12/22/2016 10:29:11 PM
Despite the popularity of social networks and technologies that intend to enhance social interaction, more people feel lonely now than before. Results from recent consumer research show that lonely consumers prefer minority-endorsed products (Wang, Zhu, Shiv 2012).
Ran AN
12/22/2016 10:22:20 AM
No person is ex ante lonely. At most, we can say someone is more introvert or extrovert. However, loneliness at workplace discussed in this article should refer more to people’s overall feelings or perceptions about their jobs when they join in an organization. Thus, there must be more reasons or factors other than social exchange relationships causing the so-called “loneliness”, for example, whether employees receive fair treatment from their supervisors, whether they can feel satisfaction from the jobs, or whether they are arranged at appropriate positions in the organization.
Ran AN
12/22/2016 8:50:58 AM
I think employee’s loneliness should also be more or less related to the employing organization’s overall culture and environment.
Ran AN
12/22/2016 8:50:34 AM
The authors seem to take employees’ loneliness as given and just study its impact on working performance. However, employees’ loneliness can be resulting from their working or job positions. Thus, these aspects are endogenous. In many cases, huge working pressure and working overload will affect employees’ perception of their working environment and their relationship to the others in workplace.
Ran AN
12/22/2016 8:49:57 AM
The study is interesting. But I doubt whether its findings can be generalized to other employing organizations. Educational organizations such as schools might be very different from other organizations such as manufacturing firms in terms of the nature of jobs and interpersonal relationships.
12/18/2016 6:22:39 PM
Loneliness has the same effect for cases even when people are working as a team and may have more severe effect. A comparison study to investigate the difference would be interesting.
12/18/2016 4:36:18 PM
It is hard to distinguish lonely people when the company is interviewing an employee. It shows up gradually at work. The managerial suggestions in this research are of practical importance as ex post prescription.
12/18/2016 4:35:23 PM
When people are feeling lonely, they’re likely to experience at the same time with depression and poor self-image. It is intuitively to imagine that it is negatively correlated with in-role performance and extra-role behavior. The difference between mediation effect of supervisor-subordinate relationship and organization-employee relationship is intriguing.
12/18/2016 4:34:50 PM
I’m a little confused that loneliness is a sense of emotional feeling which is not likely to be a consistent characteristic of a person. Loneliness is more like a result than the reason. Would it be better to investigate the feature of personalities that could make people feel lonely more frequently? Do introversive people feel lonely more or extroversive people feel more?
12/10/2016 4:20:38 PM
This is an interesting study in a sense that it reveals how loneliness affects our work performance. But in my view, the first question to clarify is where loneliness comes from. Does workplace loneliness come from unsatisfactory working environment, or from lives outside work or even is born. Different answers to this question give different implications of how a corporation can deal with the negative impacts of workplace loneliness.
TONG Dandan
12/6/2016 9:44:38 PM
Classic psychological research has shown that people would actively cope with their own loneliness. Moreover, instead of coping with the problem that gave rise to the loneliness, people may engage in "secondary coping", defined as engaging in unrelated activities that would make them feel better. Recent work in social relationships provides empirical support for such possibility in workplace context. For instance, employees who feel lonely in workplace are more likely to contact with friends during work hours. Despite of its potential importance, such coping strategy is definitely at the cost of the organization. It is reasonable to speculate that lonely employees are more likely to engage in other types of work-unrelated activities in order to feel better. Loneliness is inherently associated with dissatisfaction with social relationships. Therefore, for lonely employees, it might be much easier to engage in distractive and pleasant activities (not doing jobs, of course), than to nurturing relationships with colleagues and superordinates. How to improve the in-role performance of lonely employees may still remain a challenge in practice.
TONG Dandan
12/6/2016 9:32:56 PM
The authors didn't investigated what made employees feel lonely. The antecedents of loneliness can vary, and have different implications for coping strategies. For instance, loneliness can be an individual trait. Some employees may be inherently more lonely than others, and meanwhile, they may be of lower level of self-esteem and less likely to perform well. Another possibility is that the lonely employees don't fit in well with the organization, that said, they may either experience social exclusion from colleagues, or they may be dissatisfied with the workplace and colleagues to begin with. To provide help or social support to lonely employees would not work well if the help is not appreciated. In order to both benefit the employees and to reduce unnecessary cost of the organization, it would be important to identify the reasons for employee loneliness, and using effective tactics to cope with it. The tactic can range from improving social relationships to improving the capability of the employees to changing a job.
TONG Dandan
12/6/2016 9:21:57 PM
To examine the role of loneliness in workplace is both interesting and of empirical importance. The findings lend support to the practice of "team building", which has been endorsed by many organizations. On one hand, from the perspective of communal social relationships, taking care of employees' emotional states (e.g., loneliness) can enhance their subjective well being. As such, employees may reciprocate by contributing to a more cohensive group. On the other hand, from the perspective of exchange social relationships, managers can increase empoyees' commitment to the organization and improve in-role performance by making them feel positive. Thus, as the authors suggest, employers and organizations may take action to help lonely employees.