On Belonging and Loneliness at Work

Elizabeth Lembke
5 min readNov 10, 2020


YES/NO Question: Are the # of connections representative of feeling a sense belonging?

I asked this question during a #WRBC Lunch and Learn leadership session for a customer. I received a very clear answer of “No” from the participants. When I asked them the difference, my favorite answer was the following:

“You “belong” to someone if you know you can ask them for a favor or anything. It is quality over quantity.“

IOW, a peer or at least someone would be willing to pull a claim check on you and your relationship. In a study on GenZ on Belonging, Ophelia (20) describes belonging as… ”[a] place that’s open… where you can be known even in the complicated times… where all [is] on the table, and yet you’re loved.“

In a recent #SOSUV, the wonderful Lerato Semenya in her keynote shared the following definition “Belonging is the feeling of being part of something and mattering to others. We create it through inclusion, which consists of intentional acts.”

Intentional acts, like the 1995 story of the twin tiny preemies, who when one of the twins was on a stark health decline, the doctors put both preemies in the same incubator and the healthy twin wrapped her arm around her sister, which immediately caused the sick sister’s breathing and vitals to stabilize. A clear case of the power of touch, the power of connection.

Obviously, touch is, during this time, much harder to come by. Which makes this inherent need to connect even more important as telework or, in newer less-bureaucratic #speak hybrid or WFH (work from home) becomes the norm. In fact, Professor Susan Ashford, from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and her coauthors stated in their work, that many scholars and researchers “have documented the feelings of isolation experienced by teleworkers” and have found that the experience can lead to “significantly more negative emotions such as loneliness, irritability, worry, and guilt.” (Aaron Hurst for MIT Sloan). Which also often leads to a stronger sense of demotivation, anxiety, and ostracism.

Even in normal times, loneliness at work is an hard issue and, unfortunately for the most part, a “swept under the carpet” subject. The fact that now we are operating in more social isolation makes the situation even more challenging — and more important to openly address. For example, in pre-lockdown times, 40% of people say that they feel isolated at work, which results in lower organizational commitment and engagement. Now the trends show that this number is going up, in particular with GenZ workers.

What are some of the signs of loneliness at work?

“People who experience loneliness make more mistakes at work, take more sick leave, feel less inclined to join in and are not easily approachable in the workplace. Trite and artificial attempts to foster social connection between colleagues, for example through hosting workplace drinks on a Friday night, fail to address the fundamental underlying human need to find meaning in what we do, to experience genuine and authentic relationships, and to grow as individuals through satisfying work. Social connection at work is more than just being happy at work. Humans can easily fake happiness. Instead, it is about contentment and doing good work. The two are not mutually exclusive.” — Dr Lindsay McMillan OAM, a future that works

Not feeling a sense of belonging or that the quality of relationships do not lend themselves to asking for a favor, feeling like one isn’t included in important decisions, nor made aware of potential opportunities, being unable to have input on work assignments etc. acerbate the feeling of being an island and not “mattering”.

Indeed, it was recently found that “being ignored at work is worse for physical and mental well-being than harassment or bullying. Researchers found that “while most consider ostracism less harmful than bullying, feeling excluded is significantly more likely to lead to job dissatisfaction, quitting and health problems. “We’ve been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable — if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” says Professor Sandra Robinson from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, “but ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”

Why does social exclusion hurt? It’s evolutionary, my dear Watson. Social belonging is a basic human need, that is literally hardwired into our DNA. Why? The prevailing thought is that it aids us as social animals to respond to threats to inclusion. In studies, it has been found “that humans demonstrate convergence between the two types of pain in thought, emotion, and behavior, and demonstrate, primarily through nonhuman animal research, that social and physical pain share common physiological mechanisms.”

Ergo, we cannot tell the difference between social and physical pain — it hurts.

Therefore, it is my not-so-humble-opinion, that we need to reduce the stigma around loneliness and raise the importance of fostering a sense of real belonging. Many people feel ashamed about feeling lonely, but a culture of silence contributes to a culture of loneliness and further isolation, while we are already physically isolated. Talking openly about what is going on, our challenges, our “stuck-in-a-funks”, our struggles is a telltale sign of emotional intimacy, which is the cornerstone of connection. This drives home the case for how important it is that we express even more social competence in social isolation.

Social Competence in Social Isolation — Reach Out, Touch…

What can we do?

Recommendations for intentional acts to connect as a leader and foster a true sense of belonging are fairly easily given — Create an open and empowering culture. Lead by example. Distribute work with team input. Make time for connecting. Put in time to give support — but the doing? It has to start with our own vulnerable selves first. Often times we shy away from doing this as it opens up parts of ourselves that are absolutely not polished and we expose our underbelly for judgement. Yet, it does truly make a difference. It is that first step for helping guide ourselves out of loneliness and reinvigorate our own sense of belonging.

So I encourage you to ask yourself: how are you going to take that first step to truly connect?



Elizabeth Lembke

Chief Talent Navigator: Passionately transforming work, culture, talents and HR. www.transformingtalent.co @hrimprov #learningmavens #AMaze2022 EN/DE/Gif