By Rachel Feintzeig 

They have friends at work and good relationships with their managers. But younger employees still feel alone at the office, according to a new survey.

More than 80% of employed members of Generation Z -- many of whom are just entering the workforce -- and 69% of employed millennials are lonely, according to a survey of more than 10,400 people, including about 6,000 workers, in the U.S. from health insurer Cigna Corp. Older workers have lower rates of loneliness; they are also less likely to say they feel alienated by their co-workers or emotionally distant from colleagues, the survey found.

For many younger workers, a day at the office comes with a sense of emptiness and the need to hide their true selves, according to the data. More than 60% of both Gen Z respondents -- 18- to 22-year-olds -- and millennial workers -- which the survey defined as those 23 to 37 -- have a close friend at work. Yet they find their jobs less meaningful and feel more friction between their values and those of their companies, compared with older workers, the survey found.

Cigna classified participants as lonely -- or not -- based on their responses to a 20-item questionnaire called the UCLA Loneliness Scale. It assesses feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

Communication styles might be feeding younger generations' sense of isolation, said Douglas Nemecek, Cigna's chief medical officer for behavioral health. They tend to shun phone calls and in-person conversations -- the kinds of interactions that can lead to real connections -- in favor of email and text messages, he said.

Cigna's survey also found a connection between social media use and loneliness. Nearly three-fourths of heavy social media users were classified as lonely, compared with 52% of light social media users.

"Having a thousand friends on Facebook and Twitter does not necessarily help us to feel more connected," Dr. Nemecek said.

The relationship between social media and loneliness seems to have intensified since Cigna's 2018 survey -- that year, just 53% of heavy social media users were considered lonely, compared with 47% of light social media users. Cigna conducted its most recent survey in July and August and found that Americans are getting lonelier overall. Now, Cigna classifies 61% of Americans as lonely, up 7 percentage points from 2018.

The rise of remote work might be contributing to some employees' feelings. Telecommuting has become a hot benefit, with 27% of companies allowing full-time remote work in 2019, up 4 percentage points from 2018, according to a separate survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. Cigna found that remote workers were more likely to say their relationships with others weren't meaningful and that they didn't have anyone to turn to.

According to Cigna, lonely workers take twice as many sick days as non-lonely workers -- 9.5 days, compared with 4.2 days -- and miss more days of work because of stress. Those can be vital issues to employers, who are Cigna's clients.

Other research from Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has found that lonely workers are less committed to their organizations and have lower performance ratings from supervisors.

Loneliness lowers workers' social skills, Ms. Barsade said, leading them to start sharing too much or too little with colleagues. As a result, she said co-workers start to view lonely workers as less approachable.

"You start to withdraw from the people you want to connect to," she said. "Once you hit a certain tipping point for loneliness, it's very difficult to come back from."

Ms. Barsade has also found that emotions like loneliness at work can be contagious. Her research, based on a lab experiment where an actor embodied four different moods, from angry and stressed to calm and serene, found that employees subconsciously mimic others' facial expressions and then end up owning those emotions, ratcheting up the impact on an organization.

"This is not just the individual employee's problem," Ms. Barsade said. "This is the whole company's problem."

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 23, 2020 06:14 ET (11:14 GMT)

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