Feeling isolated at work is a growing health concern

Some equate loneliness with being a loser, unenthusiastic, hard to get along with, not personable, yet none of those labels fit actor, social media evangelist and COVID-19 investigator Samantina Zenon. Consider that during the pandemic she not only worked a full-time job, she also wrote a book, started a TikTok channel with almost 11,000 followers and modeled shapewear online.

“All that, and still I’m very lonely,” said the 31-year-old Queens resident.

Even though she and her fellow COVID-19 investigators communicate through group chat, “When I’m facing real work challenges, there’s not a co-worker I can confide in, mainly because we never met in real life. Real friendship has never been established.”

Zenon also misses the kind of casual interactions she used to have when she worked on-site at her previous job, like venting during lunch or talking about “boy trouble” on the way to the train. She now fears that her lack of physical interaction with others and time outside of her apartment might be beginning to affect her health.

“I’ve gained 50 pounds, and sometimes the reflections on the wall of my apartment make me imagine things that aren’t there,” she said. “My mind has too much time to wander.”

It’s a lot to admit, but Zenon isn’t embarrassed or ashamed, nor should she be, according to the experts we spoke to.

Samantina Zenon, 31, has felt isolated from friends and colleagues while working from home. Zenon, an actress and artist, has also been working remotely for the city from her home in Woodside, Queens.
Despite working a full-time job, publishing a book and launching a popular TikTok channel, Samantina Zenon claims she’s “gained 50 pounds” during the pandemic.
Stephen Yang

“The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated loneliness,” said workplace expert and author Jennifer Moss. “Loneliness is as impactful on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s worse than diabetes.”

Moss also explained that more Zoom isn’t the solution. “The only time we’re looking at each other as closely as we are on a screen is when we are mating or scared,” she said. In other words, for some, video meetings and conversations create added stress.

“We talk, Zoom, tweet and text but we’re not feeling a sense of connection,” said Susan McPherson, a communications expert and author of “The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships” (McGraw-Hill).

There are those who don’t feel a connection even if they’re sharing physical space with their co-workers. It could be that their workmates have formed a clique, are in different life stages or are perceived as a threat. While feeling alone can be both uncomfortable and alienating, there may be something you can do about it.

“Consider that everyone is a bit out of sorts and that their behavior is not necessarily about you,” said Jenn Lim, CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, a company that aims to inspire science-based happiness, and author of “Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact”

(Grand Central Publishing, October 2021).

Lim recalled a woman who seemed inattentive and isolated during a business meeting. A co-worker pulled her aside afterward and asked, “Are you OK?” It turns out that the woman had received a 3 a.m. phone call the night before about the death of a family member.

“We need to ask each other if we are alright,” said Lim. “Find the courage to reach out and offer help or ask for help. You’re not alone and everyone has a need to feel human.”

David, a data analyst who has asked us not to use his last name, has been to the offices of the New Jersey pharmaceutical company campus where he works just a few times since he was hired last year.

“I wanted to see my office for the first time and I was hoping to meet some people my age and at my level. But besides my boss’s boss and a bunch of executives, I was the only one there. I’ve practically been in solitary confinement since I moved here. Even now that I can go out, I don’t know anyone to go with,” he said, adding that he’s thinking of looking for a part-time job in retail to make contact with real people.

Young professionals, particularly, are accustomed to being in a community setting like a dorm or campus environment with people coming and going, according to Jill Tipograph, co-founder of Early Stage Careers. “Now, perhaps they are in their apartment all alone, possibly in a new city, living in temporary housing that does not yet feel or look like home,” she said. “Unless you are a happy nomad, this is disruptive and transitional changes can be challenging and uncomfortable to begin with.”

The Early Stage Careers company co-founder Jill Tipograph
Early Stage Careers co-founder Jill Tipograph argues newly hired college graduates face “disruptive and transitional changes” in city environments.
Annie Wermiel

Life coach Anita Kanti suggested that workers ask for assistance from their employers. “This is one time we all need to embrace being vulnerable. We need to be brave when it comes to taking care of our mental health,” she said.

One way to get back in the groove is to join a professional organization. “Joining a professional network for people who are early careerists, or newcomers to the city where you live or who do philanthropic work can give you something to look forward to during the workday,” Tipograph said. “This also might lead to feeling like you are making a meaningful contribution to a bigger agenda.”

You can also connect to colleagues you have yet to meet within the organization.

“Reach out to them in the means that it is most comfortable and appropriate professionally [e-mail, text, Slack, chat in Zoom] and let them know you would like to meet with them for 10 to 15 minutes to learn how you can best be helpful to them and learn more about their role,” said McPherson. “Leading with, ‘How can I help?’ is far better than asking if you can ‘pick their brain.’”

And if you are sick of working from home alone, sign up for a co-working venue. These range from Industrious, Luminary, WeWork, the Wing and many more.

“Often, companies will cover the monthly expense, especially if you do not live close to the headquarters,” said Moss. “Many of these ventures feature events, mixers, gatherings and you, no doubt, will meet new people.”