Are You Lonely at Work? Avoid This Burnout Risk Factor

Three easy mindfulness practices that build resilience at work.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

In my work with clients, I've encountered many whose depression was directly related to the workplace. While this wasn't always apparent at first, the story would eventually come out.  I remember how this unfolded with Wanda (not her real name): She felt exhausted and overwhelmed by life, which was fueled by an inability to sleep. She had acute feelings of being cut off and isolated, which is not uncommon for depression. Wanda also lost her ability to focus, concentrate, and be effective at work. While this had all the earmarks of depression, it also had key features related to burnout.

Through questioning, I learned that Wanda's feelings about work were grounded in some very real issues. For example, I asked her to tell me about her day, from the moment she walked into the workplace. Each morning she entered a large office space where everyone was already working, their heads buried in their computers. 

Free Digital Photos
You Don't Need to Feel Alone
Source: Free Digital Photos

"No one ever says hello or even lifts their heads," she said, almost tearfully. In addition, her supervisor rarely gave her direction or seemed to understand how to encourage or support her. There was no time to get to know anyone, and the pace and workload kept increasing to save money. Every night she came home feeling more alone, depressed, and exhausted.

At first, Wanda did not want to accept that work could be a problem. I think that's because it's so essential to our lives, in terms of self-esteem and financially, that we can't wrap our heads around losing it or thinking that it is actually harming us. We need to think of the workplace as a community, and if your community doesn't encourage connection with others, that's a real problem. 

For example, one study looked at data on loneliness and depression in communities consisting of persons older than 60. While depression could be predicted in part by health issues or a recent loss, the study also found it was also related to participation and social connection.

An article in Harvard Business Review makes the point: "There is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. This loneliness is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout."

When people are burned out at work they begin to disengage. That's when the costs of absenteeism and illness start increasing. If you feel lonely and isolated at work, here are three easy mindfulness practices that can build up your resilience and your ability to bounce back:

  1. Make Personal Contact Upon Arriving. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's crucial to overcoming feelings of being alone. Seek out one person you like or know (or would like to know better). Share something positive or humorous with that person to get those feel-good hormones in gear. 
  2. Notice One Gratitude at Work. I've explored gratitude in other posts, but here the idea is to focus on one thing you appreciate or could be grateful for at work. This could be something simple, such as how your work helps others or how it helps support your life in numerous ways.
  3. Take Short Breaks to Renew and Help Others. Throughout your day, take a few moments to renew and refresh yourself during which you stand, stretch, or look outside. Then, combine that with reaching out to someone by asking if you can do anything for them, such as get them a cup of coffee, water, etc. Showing hospitality or helping others is one of the best ways to feel like you're making a difference.