Human resources

How to Feel Less Lonely at Work

It’s hard to spend most of your waking hours with people you don’t click with.
Bright colored illustration of coworkers mingling
Antonio Rodriguez/Adobe Stock

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 easily. But it’s not always that simple. According to new 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 the way we work; many people now do their jobs 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 just don’t click with your coworkers only exacerbates those difficult feelings.

“Loneliness can really feel different for different people, depending on the context they’re working in,” Michelle Lim, PhD, a clinical psychologist, loneliness researcher, and codirector 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 in order to recover after shifts. Feeling isolated at your job isn’t great from a career perspective, either. 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. 

Needless to say, if this sounds like something you can relate to right now, you’re not, well, alone. According to Dr. Lim, it’s never too late to make connections with the people around you, especially if you want to make a change. “Loneliness isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it’s a prompt to do something different,” she says. Here are some strategies to try if you’re feeling really lonely at work.

Start by finding small ways to interact with your coworkers.

Most workplaces won’t ever be as social as, say, 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 who’s incredibly lonely but nervous about meeting people, for example, it can be about smiling or nodding at someone as opposed to 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.

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to small talk, it can be helpful to remember that everyone generally has something in common with their coworkers, according to Rachel Morrison, PhD, 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 a lot of people who are quite similar to you,” Dr. Morrison tells SELF. “They’ve got a similar career and they go to the same place to work. 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 up in the microwave, which can give you an opportunity to bond over something you both love—even if it is just an obsession with corgis or a love 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 first 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, maybe you worked through a company-wide restructure, put in long hours side by side, or traveled to a conference, then spent hours at the airport together waiting for a delayed flight. “Quite often there are these really 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 a little more of your real 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 really 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: Maybe share a tidbit about a gripping TV show you know you and another coworker are watching, or express a small work frustration you’re struggling with, like a particularly fiddly setting on your video chat. 

Be deliberate about the way you connect with others—especially if you’re working from home. 

2022 study found that workplace loneliness, as a result of working remotely, can make people feel as though they’re lacking support from their coworkers and managers. This support could be the chance to ask a follow-up question after a tense meeting or the opportunity to open up to your boss about something going on in your personal life. “When you’re working from home a lot of those serendipitous and useful conversations, like those that happen by the water cooler, fall away,” says Dr. Morrison. 

When you’re primarily communicating online, you can’t rely on these chance encounters, Dr. Morrison adds. Instead, you need to be a little more deliberate about things like saying good morning on Slack, messaging someone after a meeting to tell them you enjoyed their presentation, or dropping something interesting you’ve read into a group chat or Slack channel dedicated to socializing (a short channel description, like “for coffee runs and non-work chats,” can help set a more casual tone).

If you’re in a physical workplace, Dr. Lim suggests organizing your routines so they overlap with those of your coworkers as another way to deliberately connect. “Now that we have hybrid working models, it can be a positive thing to ask someone to go get a coffee or to go into the office on a day you know someone you’ve never met will be in,” says Dr. Lim. “Actually making the effort to meet up, even one time, can help you gain more confidence in that relationship.” 

Try to manage your expectations about what camaraderie might look like in your workplace. 

Just as every workplace is different, every workplace’s approach to socializing will be too. If you’re feeling lonely at work, it can be helpful to consider what your ideal work friendships would look like—then make sure they’re feasible. “If you’ve just moved to a new city, are working in a bar, and are looking to make a new circle of friends, you’re going to engage with your colleagues completely differently than you would if you want to make partner in a law firm,” says Dr. Morrison. “Context is really important.”

As nice as it is to have a work bestie, placing that kind of pressure on yourself and your colleagues can be detrimental; if it doesn’t work out, your self-esteem can take a hit and you may end up feeling more isolated than ever. According to Dr. Lim, the most important thing is finding someone you can relate to, even if it’s just on a work level. Through small interactions and sharing more about yourself at work—whether that’s online or in person—you can find new ways to relate to the people around you and eventually, hopefully, find people to connect with, confide in, and make your days a little more joyful.