• 6 minute read

Does Loneliness Matter At Workplace?

Lau, Dora Chi-sun(劉芷申)

Previous research tells us loneliness can make us sick and depressed. Does loneliness affect our work performance as well?

By Fang Ying, Senior Writer, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

Previous research tells us loneliness can make us sick and depressed. However, does loneliness affect our work performance as well? A study by CUHK Business School reveals the impacts of loneliness at the workplace.

Comparing with their non-lonely counterparts, lonely employees will experience lower quality exchanges with their bosses and supervisors and with the organization and they will tend to be worse in carrying out their duties at workplace. This is the finding of a study[1] conducted by Dora Lau Chi-sun, associate professor at the Department of Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, and Rico Lam Long-wai, professor at the Department of Management of the University of Macau.

The study evaluates the impact of workplace loneliness on employees’ work performance. According to the researchers, prior research has shown that loneliness, which defined as insufficient or unsatisfactory social relationships, can produce a variety of ill effects, such as anxiety and depression, while little research has been conducted on loneliness under the work context.

“We know very little whether and how loneliness at workplace affects employee’s attitudes and behaviors,” says Prof. Lam. “It’s an important issue to explore since insufficient social connection can have critical consequences at workplace.”

The Study

For the purpose of this study, the researchers investigated the state of workplace loneliness of 532 schoolteachers in 18 public and private schools in Macau by distributing questionnaires to them.

At the same time, another set of questionnaires was sent to the teachers’ supervisors, including vice principals, heads of department and subject heads, to provide rating on schoolteachers’ work performance.

According to the researchers, schoolteachers can experience loneliness at work because they work independently rather than in teams. In school, every teacher has his or her own class schedule and is responsible for different subjects. Teachers in Macau usually need to use their non-teaching time to grade student assignments and may have little time for social interactions with colleagues, explains Prof. Lam.

The researchers offered different measurement scales for respondents to measure these variables: state of loneliness, in-role performance, and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), which can be interpreted as extra-role behaviors, leader-member exchange (LMX), which is used to measure the quality of supervisor-subordinate relationship, and organization-member exchange (OMX) which is used to gauge the exchange quality between organization and employee.

In the questionnaire, for example, a sample item for the state of loneliness is: “At work, people are around me but not with me”; for in-role performance: “Adequately completes assigned duties and fulfill responsibilities specified in job description”; for OCB: “Goes out of his or her way to help new employees”; for LMX: “Regardless of how much formal authority he or she is, my supervisor would ‘bail me out’ at his/her expense”; and for OMX: “I try to look out for the best interest of the organization because I can rely on it to take care of me.”

The participating teachers were asked to rate how often they felt lonely at the workplace on a 4-point scale: never, rarely, sometimes or often. Except for workplace loneliness, all the above variables were measured on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

“The lack of high-quality social exchange relationships, constrained lonely employees from receiving valuable support and resources from their supervisors and organizations, which leads to their poor performance.” – Prof. Rico Lam

Important Findings

The study finds that workplace loneliness is negatively related to employees’ in-role performance and extra-role behavior.

“Lonely individuals tend to have poor self-evaluation and low social skills, which leads to their unwillingness to seek new social relationships,” says Prof. Lau.

In addition to poor self-image, prior research shows that lonely individuals tend to hold negative views of others and suspect other’s intentions. They are more likely to see others as less trustworthy than their non-lonely counterparts.

So in the workplace, according to the authors, lonely employees are less able to establish social exchange relationships in organizations due to their unwillingness to take risk and low trust on others. However, social exchange is associated with higher levels of job performance and extra-role behaviors, so lonely employees may not spend as much effort achieving organizational goals as their non-lonely counterparts. Hence, they reduce their levels of in-role performance and extra-role behaviors, comparing with their non-lonely counterparts.

Apart from the relationship between loneliness and employees’ work performance, the study further reveals that the social relationships with supervisors and organizations have mediating effects on employees’ work performance.

To be specific, the supervisor-subordinate relationship quality mediates the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and employees’ extra-role behavior, whereas organization-employee exchange quality mediates the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and employees’ in-role performance.

Why is that the case? According to the research, employees generally exchange with two types of partners: supervisors or leaders and the employing organization.

Under high-quality exchange, both employees and supervisors engage in a social exchange relationship characterized by respect, trust and mutual obligations and subordinates may receive more job resources, such as emotional support, performance feedback and job autonomy from their supervisors, which motive them to work better. Also, such employees are more likely to assume tasks requiring more effort and greater responsibility. By contrast, subordinates with low-quality exchange with their supervisors lack relevant job resources and do not initiate social exchanges to conserve their limited resources. Consequently, these lonely employees are less motivated to engage in extra-role behaviors and provide above-average performance.

The same goes for the relationship between employee and organization. Lonely employees tend to see others as less trustworthy and are less willing to participate in social exchanges with employing organizations. Therefore, they receive fewer resources from their employing organizations. However, these organizational resources and support are conducive to employees performing well on their jobs. The lack of such resources implies that, even though lonely employees may be willing to perform well on job, they are less able to do so comparing with non-lonely employees.

“The lack of high-quality social exchange relationships, constrained lonely employees from receiving valuable support and resources from their supervisors and organizations, which leads to their poor performance,” says Prof. Lam.

Managerial Implications

As one of the first to document the effects of workplace loneliness on employee work performance, the study has practical implications for managers who would like to leverage the findings to motive their staff members, according to the researchers.

For example, to minimize the adverse effects of workplace loneliness, companies should encourage their supervisors to establish quality relationships with their employees, providing sufficient peer support to them. With high-quality relationships between supervisors and employees, companies can then expect employees to take extra work tasks and to perform extra-role behaviors such as mentoring new employees and offering suggestions to supervisors.

In the example of schoolteachers, their in-role performance is related to classroom instructions and student activities, whereas their extra-role performance is related to activities outside the classroom. The primary objective of schools is to attract quality students and to provide them a well-rounded education. “So when schools are able to develop high-quality relationships with teachers, teachers may reciprocate by devoting more effort on teaching and student activities,” the authors say.


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