Isolation — not to be confused with the concept of solitude, which is healthy in moderation — can be harmful to your mental/emotional health if severely prolonged. Sometimes, isolation can feel like it's beyond our control, especially when we have all of these preconceived ideas about how the people in our environments might respond to our attempts at connection.
Since most working adults are spending 40+ hours of their week in the workplace, it makes sense that this is where many people are getting their daily dose of human interaction. But when people aren't as preoccupied with creating genuine connections with one another in the one place where they're investing the most of their time, this can leave everyone feeling drained in more ways than one. Social isolation is an epidemic that has ironically only worsened in the age of social media — and the only real cure for it might just be a little more facetime and a lot more chit chat.
What is workplace isolation?
Workplace isolation is a type of social isolation that occurs specifically in the workplace as a result of factors like generational gaps, clique-y work environments or company cultures that insist that silence is golden. Workplace isolation can occur for an onslaught of reasons — it can be self-inflicted by an individual as a result of introversion or social anxiety or it can be caused by outside forces like co-workers intentionally isolating specific individuals or groups — which enters workplace bullying territory.
Feelings of isolation at work can affect your self-esteem, sense of motivation and overall quality of life since it can lead to or exacerbate serious mental and emotional health disorders like depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, we're living in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, and it's impossible to remedy these feelings on our own. This epidemic exists not because we aren't surrounded by tons of people 24/7; it's because the quality — or lack thereof — of our relationships with each other aren't that great, and it shows!
If you've ever experienced the feeling of being completely alone in a room full of people, then chances are you've experienced social isolation to some degree. If you find yourself feeling this way every time you walk through the doors of your job, that's a tell-tale sign that it may be time to re-evaluate the quality of your relationships with the people with whom you work.
Workplace isolation can be triggered by the feeling that your social interactions with people that you see on a daily basis are shallow, superficial or not genuine. When conversations don't seem to get past a generic "Nice weather we're having," it can be frustrating and lead to a spiral of speculation induced anxiety over why these conversations are seemingly going nowhere. Our brains have been conditioned to assume the worst case scenario for why we must be "failing" at socializing. The truth is, you're not as bad at social interactions as you think you are. Like any other skill, socializing takes a certain level of practice, and with it, we could all be better co-workers, acquaintances and, dare I say, friends to one another.
5 things to do when you feel isolated at work:
Forming friendships and other personal connections with people as an adult is already hard enough. The pressure of doing so with people with whom you work can seem a little overwhelming and make us feel vulnerable and exposed — but for the sake of everyone in the office's sanity, don't be afraid to reach out! Below are a few ways to take back some control when you're feeling isolated at work.
1. Expand your interests.
The more you explore what’s out in the world, the more you’ll be able to relate to others. A big part of forming meaningful relationships with others is having common interests. If you're a fan of a broad range of things, then the chances of you showing up on someone else's friendship radar is a lot more likely. Is there a tv show or podcast that’s been generating lots of water-cooler talk lately? Check it out and try to engage in the next coffee break chit chat about it. Not only will having something to talk about lessen some of the anxiety of figuring out what to say, but it gives everyone a common thread to bond over. Plus, it definitely wouldn't hurt to throw in a casual "You haven't seen the Game of Thrones finale yet?!" just for good measure.
2. Personalize your workspace.
How can we expect our interactions with our co-workers to be genuine and meaningful if we aren't willing to share some knowledge about ourselves? Using nonverbal methods of self-expression can be the perfect in for anyone who wants to ease into getting to know us. Personalizing your workspace with photos, knick-knacks and other items of significance that help motivate you is the ultimate conversation starter. It also doesn't hurt to have constant reminders of the relationships and meaningful connections you have outside of work when you feel like you're not having the easiest time cultivating those connections with your co-workers.
3. Reach out to co-workers outside of your department.
If you’re beginning to feel like you exist in your own little bubble at work and it's starting to feel a bit claustrophobic, then it might be time to step out of your comfort zone and start scouting for a new work buddy. While the person who sits at the next desk over seems like the easiest friend to be made, you may actually find unlikely allies in the places you’d least expect — like in other departments of your company. Opening up your circle to include people that aren't doing exactly the same work as you gives you lots of conversation topics to discuss with your new potential work buddy and an opportunity to learn something new! This tip is especially important if you're fresh out of school and are younger than many of your co-workers — showing an interest in everyone's role in the company and a willingness to learn might just earn you a few new mentors.
4. Invite co-workers out to lunch or after work drinks.
Have you found a co-worker or two with whom you feel comfortable enough to crack the occasional joke but are a bit unsure about how to move the interaction forward? Invite them to eat lunch together, or if you're feeling particularly sociable, ask them to an after-work happy hour event. Work friendships tend to feel more legitimate if supplemented with time spent outside of the workplace or outside of normal workplace conversation.
A good example of this can be found in Korean culture, which does co-worker bonding really well through the concept of Hwe sik (회식) or "Office Dinner." This is when co-workers and bosses get together after a long day at work and go out for food and drink and sometimes even karaoke for the sake of team bonding. Using opportunities to share a meal together or have a drink is a great way to facilitate a relaxed and genuine "get to know you" session with your co-workers because chances are they’re craving food, drinks, and human interaction too!
5. Switch up your scenery
Sure, you have a desk, but that doesn’t mean you should be chained to it all day! If you have the privilege of working in an aesthetically pleasing environment, it might be to your benefit to move to that table by the sunny window to switch up your surroundings and to make you visible to the foot traffic in that space. If you're sitting at a desk in the part of the office where no one really ventures, then that means not enough of your co-workers are getting to see your lovely face. Sometimes battling workplace isolation — or any form of isolation — can just mean changing the spaces that you choose to occupy. If you're itching to befriend someone from your department, extend the invitation to a team member or two to join you in working collaboratively in a space that isn't the desk pile — because honestly, your desk stuck in that windowless corner of the office just was not cutting it.
Feeling isolated from others at work is not uncommon, it's simply an extension of the currently ongoing global loneliness epidemic. Creating healthy, meaningful friendships with your co-workers means being willing to be vulnerable with them and really just putting in a genuine effort to know them on a human level — not just as Angela from accounting.
Whether you're making the leap to initiate more interactions or simply adjusting yourself and your surroundings to welcome the attempts of others seeking friendship, however you choose to approach this deeply personal experience is valid. It's not always easy opening yourself up to new social interactions, especially ones in the workplace, but in order to build the kind of meaningful connections you want sometimes you just have to take the chance. Best case scenario, you'll find someone else to fangirl with over the next binge-worthy Netflix sensation.