‘Loneliness epidemic’ hits Gen Z hardest: 1 in 4 are lonely at work

New research finds that 44% of adults under 25 don’t have friends in their workplace, with 23% suffering from loneliness and workplace isolation.
Feature Lonely Generation Panel

The COVID-19 pandemic may have made all of us feel isolated during its darkest days of lockdowns and work-from-home mandates, but for the youngest generation of workers, Generation Z, that loneliness is nothing new.

In fact, Gen Z has been called the “loneliest generation,” and with good reason. Despite being the largest generation in history — larger than the millennial generation, which in turn was larger than baby boomers — members of Gen Z, which is comprised of young people ages 6–24, report feeling consistently alone.

New research from team-building firm Wildgoose finds that 44% of adults under 25 don’t have friends in their workplace, and 23% suffer from loneliness and workplace isolation.

This backs up a 2018 survey conducted by nationwide health insurer Cigna that revealed nearly half of respondents say they always or sometimes feel alone, and 54% say they feel no one knows them well. Such loneliness is connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

For the youngest workers, early and unestablished in their careers and professional circles, and likely living entirely on their own for the first time in their lives, that loneliness is its own epidemic. The data from the Wildgoose study shows that these figures have spiked massively since 2017, with an increase in workplace loneliness among young adults of 130% in only the last four years.

In comparison, only about one in eight employees between the ages of 35–64 report loneliness at work, just half the rate seen in their younger counterparts.

Under-25s were also most likely to find it hard getting to know new colleagues while working from home. Nearly one in 10 (7%) Gen Z respondents had started a new role over the last year but had not yet made any friends at work. This was only true of one in 20 employees when looking at all age groups combined.

Debra Lafler, wellness and employee assistance program (EAP) manager for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and an IB blogger on wellness, says although it’s easy to blame an over-reliance on social media for Generation Z’s loneliness, it’s more than that. “It’s anything that disconnects us from communicating and connecting in person with individuals or groups. Think about this for a minute. Think about how the average [in-person] workplace is set up. We are separated in cubes or offices, all communicating by email or text or social media. Are we lonely? You bet.

“We are human and we need human, face-to-face interaction,” Lafler continues. “We connect and communicate with each other not just through our words, but through facial expressions, body language, behaviors, and so on. We are all suffering with loneliness, and we are also constantly creating it through our habits. We need to intervene with ourselves and others. Wellness is about cultivating well-being, and in order to do that we need human connection through face-to-face interactions. We need and want ‘to love and be loved’ — in person.”

Decision-makers and HR teams are being urged to build closer colleague connections as many companies move toward a hybrid working model, with employees splitting their time between home and the office.

The research also highlights benefits for those who have a “best friend” at work.

Unsurprisingly, almost two-thirds (57%) of respondents say it makes work more enjoyable. Twenty-two percent believe it means they are equally or more productive and 21% say having a best friend at work makes them more creative. Twelve percent of people are less likely to leave a company where they have friends.

“It’s only natural that people want to get out and socialize in person after lockdowns,” Wildgoose managing director Jonny Edser says. “I think we’ve all had enough of being indoors and people will be looking forward to seeing colleagues in person again. It’s a return to normality.

“Some people have started jobs without meeting their new colleagues, which must be especially tough,” continues Edser. “Hopefully those people can now get to know their new workmates properly. And companies need to realize that face-to-face social events play a huge role in that, particularly when people have lacked social interaction in their everyday lives. For many people, what’s been missing is the chance to have fun with colleagues, rather than just focusing on work.”

Gill Brabner, FCIPD and OD specialist and CEO at Resound Training, says, “My advice to HR teams would be: Don’t wait for signs of loneliness. Encourage managers to check in regularly with their team members and to take an active interest in their whole lives — know the individuals and what is important to them. Be friendly and warm. Demonstrate empathy and care. Encourage all employees to reconnect with their wider networks across the organizations — to talk to colleagues beyond their immediate team.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on issues of loneliness and this includes people in work who previously would have benefited from social time with colleagues,” Brabner adds. “This is exacerbated for those who live on their own. It’s also a difficult time to join a new organization where the onboarding is 100% virtual. Online team drinks can be stressful occasions for newbies as many of the social cues are missing. Encourage leaders and managers to use video and show their human side, be vulnerable, and let staff know they care. Don’t just build a business — build a community and a work family.”

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