Loneliness hurts. It’s this aching feeling of emptiness; a silence that exists between the versions of ourselves we present to the world. Loneliness can trick us into thinking we’re the only ones feeling that way, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: 9 million of us in the UK alone feel lonely. We are living through a loneliness epidemic and it may be the great modern public-health crisis. It affects not just our mental health, but our physical health, making us more vulnerable to everything from heart attacks and stroke to dementia and cancer. It is more closely linked to our mortality than obesity and more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It is little surprise, then, that loneliness has infiltrated the workplace. According to a survey of 4,000 employees and 100 employers by Total Jobs, just 17% of us have a “best friend” at work. This is despite the fact that friendship at work is unequivocally one of the best business decisions you can make. A Gallup poll in 1999 revealed that people with strong work friendships were 37% more likely to report that someone had encouraged their development, 27% more likely to feel like their work is important and 27% more likely to feel like their opinions matter. Seventy per cent of employers say that friendship is good for morale, company culture and the health of the people they employ.
And, despite whatever time you may spend gossiping by the biscuit tin or using Slack to discuss Love Island, just 4% of us say that friends make us less productive at work. In fact, research emphatically suggests that having a “work wife” or “work husband” makes us more productive, more creative, more intuitive and better at our jobs.
Those of us who have friends at work know their value. We know that the camaraderie, support, distraction and warmth can transform the entire experience of walking into the same office each day. Perhaps my most beloved statistic is this: 23%of us would consider leaving our jobs if our work friend did and 7% would describe the news that our friend was leaving as bereavement.
I work from home these days, so I know the act of physically isolating yourself from other human beings can be lonely. But people who are hot-desking, working in a crowded office or seeing people all day still feel lonely. Loneliness is not simply the absence of company or the act of being on your own – it’s more powerful, more insidious and cleverer than that. That’s why you can be sitting in a boardroom meeting, watching your colleague click between Powerpoint slides, listening to the chatter about KPIs, half of you aware of your surroundings, the other half wondering why you feel distant and cold and numb.
We’re not terribly good at work friendship because we have this idea that our work selves must be stoic, resilient and ambitious, rather than vulnerable, gentle and candid
So many of us commute into work silently, vehemently avoid eye contact on the Tube, scurry into the lift with perhaps a quick “Hi, how was your weekend” to a colleague, sit at our desks, stare at our computer screens, email or Slack instead of getting up to talk to someone in person and do our work to the sound of fingers tapping the keyboard ferociously, until it’s time to silently commute home. Maybe we have meetings, maybe we grab a Pret sandwich with someone, maybe we even have Friday-night drinks. But these perfunctory social interactions are simply not enough to ward off the feelings of loneliness that catch us when we’re in the queue for our morning latte, lost for ideas before a presentation or dealing with a passive-aggressive ambush from Carl down the hall in IT.
The cure to workplace loneliness is workplace friendship. We’re not terribly good at it, because we have this idea that our work selves must be stoic, resilient and ambitious, rather than vulnerable, gentle and candid. The reality is we can be all of the above. Friendship is an exchange of vulnerabilities and so to properly, truly make a friend in the office, we must be vulnerable in the office – and that can be a scary thought, when we’ve been conditioned to behave with impeccable professional decorum.
Since writing my book, The Friendship Cure, strangers and friends have approached me in droves to ask the simple question: “How can I make friends as an adult?” The answer is often simpler than they’re expecting. We ignore possibilities for friendship all the time out of complacency and fear of rejection. We do not speak to our neighbours, we do not speak to strangers, we do not speak to colleagues (about work, yes, but not about life or ourselves). To make friends at work, we must have the courage to push past the chorus of “you alright?”, we have to ask better questions than “got any holidays planned?” and we have to eschew networking for actual connection.
Follow these steps: Find someone you know through work and suspect you may get on with, ask them to consume drinks or food outside office hours and away from office territory, ask proper, sensitive, interrogative questions, actively listen to their answers, get to know them beyond their value at work, say out loud that you’ve enjoyed seeing them, keep some banter going on social media, text, WhatsApp or Slack, follow up with a second friendship date within the month to consolidate the connection, share something personal about yourself that brings you closer and proceed with friendship if all goes well. Bonus clue: a cheeky gossip, shared nemesis or secret about yourself are all good shortcuts to intimacy, if, of course, you deploy them responsibly. Enjoy improved productivity, sanity, calm and creativity – and thank me later.