UI professor studies loneliness in the post-pandemic workplace

IOWA CITY — Studies find 10% of us feel like we have no friends at work, while 70% say workplace friendships are crucial to their overall happiness. University of Iowa researchers are studying the importance of our work relationships and how to improve them, especially post-pandemic.

Beth Livingston, a U-I professor of management and entrepreneurship, says we all feel the need to connect with others, particularly if we’re spending eight, ten or 12-hours a day at work.

“When we don’t feel like we can connect with other people in our workplace, it leaves us with a kind of gaping hole in terms of our connection with other people,” Livingston says, “and that is especially true for people who may not have those extended connections outside of work, and so connecting with other people at work becomes increasingly important.”

These connections were key before COVID-19, but it’s even more vital now as so many people who began working from home during the pandemic have made the change permanent.

“I have not run across a company yet who is not concerned about the wellbeing of their employees and the burnout that so many employees are talking about now,” Livingston says. “The social affiliation and connection can really fill your cup. It can make you feel more energized. It can provide you a sense of connection and meaning in the workplace.”

Workers who feel friendless and isolated may be more likely to quit, she says, further contributing to the continued plague of turnover. Livingston says Iowans can make it a goal to seek out new friendships at work.

“You don’t have to wait and be passive recipients of connections. You can go out and say, ‘I’m going to ask people about their lives,’” Livingston says. “‘I’m going to take notes and remember things about them. I’m going to try to strike up conversations that demonstrate that I have an interest in who they are and what they’re doing.’ And you can practice those things. They are skills that you can do.”

Studies find people with plenty of friendly social connections at work tend to be more engaged, they’ll produce higher quality work, and they’re less likely to quit. Employers are taking note, she says, as the company can save money by not having to hire and train new people.

“A lot of times I think people feel like, ‘Well, I’m just not a good people person, I’m not someone who is naturally able to connect,’ and the good news is, those are absolutely things that you can practice and plan to do better.”

Livingston calls loneliness a “critical social issue,” as loneliness is linked to an increased likelihood of depression, it impacts mortality rates, and it can erode physical and mental well-being.