9 Reasons You Feel Lonely at Work — and What to Do About It
Black women often feel othered, guarded or ignored. A switch to telecommuting can make isolation worse. Learn to attract those who will ally with, affirm and advocate for you.
If you’ve been working at home because of the coronavirus outbreak, you’re likelier to feel cut off from coworkers and casual conversations. But there’s a different, underlying epidemic affecting employees: It’s loneliness. In January, health care company Cigna published “Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 U.S. Report.” Among the 10,441 adults surveyed, 30 percent of African American and 37 percent of Hispanic workers reported that they felt abandoned by coworkers when under pressure at work. Only 25 percent of white workers felt the same way.
For Black women caught between the inequities of race and gender in the workplace, that disconnection doesn’t just make for a long workday. It has negative implications for health and productivity, too. Sisters sought advice from workplace and wellness experts on how to build the relationships we need to thrive. Here are nine key reasons workers don’t feel connected, and simple ways you can counteract them.
1. You’re working from home
Remote workers surveyed by Cigna are more likely to say they lack companionship and people they can turn to. If you miss spontaneous conversation, pick up the phone. You don’t have to email or instant message only about a shared project or task. With so much upheaval related to the economy, the outbreak and protests for justice, check-ins are warranted and often welcomed. Why not send your office pals an iCalendar invite for a virtual coffee break?
2. You’re the only Black woman
Understand that allies — and foes — can be of any gender or race. “When I started, one white male and two Black male senior executives at a Wall Street firm were excellent mentors to me,” says Jane Miller*, who began her career in 1982. But, because the things you have in common won’t be obvious with coworkers who don’t look like you, you’ll need to discover mutual interests through conversation. Look for visual cues, such as photos or knickknacks, signaling shared interests.
3. You feel excluded by the company culture
Even if a workplace has a bad vibe, there are typically people within it who are genuine and caring. To find them, be observant. Veronica Cabrales, 55, currently an administrative assistant at a church parish in Queens, New York, has held positions in retail and also as an airline ticketing agent. She advises, “When you see a supervisor that shows compassion, move toward them. If you have a problem, HR won’t protect you as much as a supervisor who knows you personally and won’t treat you like a number.”
Meanwhile, consider other options. “Black women should look for companies that are willing to do organizational introspection, unlock empathy and address bias,” says Lanaya Irvin, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank. Use networking platforms such as LinkedIn to learn the culture of an organization from current and past employees.
4. You don’t have any backup
A December 2019 report by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 35 percent of white women surveyed have advocates for their ideas and skills, compared to only 19 percent of Black women. To cultivate that kind of support, regularly ask for help or advice — and offer it — to create trust. A loyal coworker can speak up for you when you’re not in the room. “When I was an assistant trader, a friend told me that my boss tried to throw me under the bus at a party that only traders were invited to,” says Miller, and that information proved to be vital.
5. You’re protecting your reputation
Do you leave a part of yourself outside when you walk into the lobby at work? Cigna found that 39 percent of workers feel the need to hide their true selves. As Black women, “there are so many things that we navigate in this skin and in this sex. We’re straddling the need to be seen [with] not standing out for the wrong reasons,” says Miller. Trying to maintain that “be twice as good” standard that so many of us have ingrained may make it difficult to express vulnerability, a key to greater connection. Consider self-disclosing a few details that aren’t sensitive. Share your failures occasionally and your successes often. Don’t pretend to have all the answers . Connecting with that Black female trader early on taught Miller not to be afraid to ask lots of questions.
6. You can’t really bond over birthday cake
Loneliness is not fixed by superficial interactions at company parties. A 2018 study by management professors Sigal Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Hakan Ozcelik of California State University, Sacramento, notes that companies need to provide opportunities for employees to bond on a deeper level and that greater workplace loneliness among employees led to lower work performance. “We are not doing our jobs just for a paycheck,” Ozcelik said. “We want to be part of the group. We want to be respected.” Sign up for a team volunteer project, fitness challenge, webinar or virtual training session. Follow up with the people who shared the experience with you.
7. You’re under the radar
Has it ever seemed like everyone in your department but you got word about an important meeting early? That’s a sign that information is shared in informal, unscheduled conversations that don’t include you. Many of us have been there. Without a sponsor, you’re less likely to be identified as someone who should be included. “Engage with leaders, even if they’re not your direct supervisor,” advises Kim Ashby Fowler, 62, a human resources consultant based in Hempstead, New York. “Once you confide in this leader, communicate your interest in more visibility, bigger assignments or a seat on task forces,” she adds. With that kind of presence and clout, it’ll be harder to make you an afterthought.
8. You’re feeling less than confident
Fowler says, “People are attracted to you and want to work with you if you exude confidence and if you’re enthusiastic and positive.” Feeling withdrawn? There’s a hack for that. Exercise regularly before work or during lunch. “Getting your heart rate up a little bit and using your muscles creates that brain state that makes you more willing to trust others. That enhances the pleasure you get from interacting with others that often makes you this more social version of yourself," Kelly McGonigal, author of The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, told NPR. The Stanford University lecturer credits the release of brain chemicals such as dopamine and endocannabinoids.
9. You haven’t found your tribe
Fowler advises that not every manager will be supportive, so you have to learn who to go to for support, mentoring and guidance. Show up for meetings of company-sponsored affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups. The meetings may be virtual and/or on-site. If you’re not part of the group’s demographic, you can show up as an interested ally.
*Name has been changed.