In suddenly empty offices all across America, idle water coolers stand as memorials to a workplace culture that has virtually disappeared during the coronavirus epidemic.

For millions now forced to labor at home, the casual collegiality symbolized by those gurgling office gathering spots has given way to seclusion and uncertainty, possibly exacerbating what ex-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called “America’s epidemic of loneliness.”

“Being socially connected is one of our basic human needs," said Sigal Barsade, a Wharton School management professor. “With so many workers going virtual, their social isolation at work leads them to be socially isolated in other aspects of their lives. It’s a recipe for people to get lonelier.”

Loneliness was a growing social concern even before COVID-19. Almost half of Americans, according to a 2018 Cigna survey, felt alone or left out. That, said researchers, increased their likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, and dementia. In Britain, the problem was deemed so severe that the government established a Ministry of Loneliness.

“The data clearly shows that many people in workplaces are struggling with loneliness and that loneliness comes with consequences,” said Murthy, an appointee of former President Barack Obama who labeled the condition a public health crisis in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article. “And that’s not just for social interaction but for concrete outputs that organizations care about, such as productivity and creativity.”

Fears that the coronavirus pandemic might be worsening the problem appeared validated by a recent Alcohol.Org survey of 13,000 work-at-home employees. Forty-two percent reported that they were drinking on the job. In addition to coping with enforced isolation, these people also were subject to more distractions, surrounded by more diversions.

“Productivity will be down dramatically,” Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor, recently told the website Vox. ‘I have four kids at home, and I’m struggling to get anything done. And it’s not just that — it’s also that motivation and creativity come from being around other people. So I find it hard to be creative and hard to self-motivate if I’m stuck in one room at home day in and day out.

“It’s a bit like exercise. Exercise goes from everything from a half an hour a week in the gym to full-on marathon training. We’re throwing the entire U.S. into the exercise equivalent of full-on marathon training by sending people to work at home five days a week all the time. And I suspect for most people, it isn’t going to work well.”

To be sure, experts disagree about working at home. Advocates have long argued that it saves time and money by cutting travel to and from work and the need for central office space. They say it can improve workers’ states of mind, giving them control over their time and the opportunity to be more involved parents.

Plus, the boosters argue, time around that water cooler in the workplace is productivity squandered.

The debate is relatively new. Academics like Penn’s Barsade and California State-Sacramento’s Hakan Ozcelik were among the first academics to study the phenomenon’s impact of lonlieness on the job. Their 2018 report — “No Employee an Island: Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance” — concluded that aside from the personal pain it inflicted, loneliness was bad for business. Lonely employees, they found, were less committed to their organizations and less approachable.

“It’s really quite devastating to be lonely,” Barsade said. “It’s a very unpleasant and painful state. Lonely people become very self-focused. You’d think they’d be reaching out to other people, but actually they become very inward-focused.“

Sigal Barsade, a Wharton School management professor
Handout
Sigal Barsade, a Wharton School management professor

Already separated from colleagues and shared workplace routines like group lunches and watercooler conversations, these employees who had difficulty adjusting socially to life in a busy office must now learn to deal with isolation in the midst of a worldwide health emergency.

A recent JAMA Psychiatry article predicted that the trend toward social distancing would lead to “a pandemic … of mental and behavioral illness."

Some workers have responded to the new reality by moving in with similarly situated colleagues or by turning frequently to services such as Zoom, the videoconferencing service that has experienced a boom during the outbreak. But others, experts fear, have withdrawn even deeper.

“When you’re already lonely, you’re interpreting information in a way that’s more negative,” Barsade said. “Normally, when you go to work, you hang out with your work colleagues. You don’t have to make any special effort. They’re just kind of there around the proverbial water cooler. But now, if you haven’t heard from people in a few days, you’re going to feel ostracized. And once you hit a tipping point and decide you’re lonely, all sorts of things start to happen psychologically that get in the way of you reaching out.”

Statistics aren’t yet available on exactly how many Americans have shifted their work locales to home offices since the COVID-19 outbreak prompted officials to issue stay-at-home edicts. Already, the share of telecommuting employees had tripled in the last 15 years and, according to a 2017 Gallup survey, 43% worked at home with “some frequency.”

Feelings of isolation might be more pronounced among the young. Seventy-five percent of the surveyed millennials and Generation-Zers, according to Cigna, felt isolated at their workplaces.

“There’s a sense of loneliness out there that can’t be exaggerated,” Margot Zielinska, head of diversity and inclusion at Korn Ferry, said in a recent article on that consulting company’s website.

Barsade said that as popular as Zoom has become, sharing a computer screen with several other faces might not be enough to ease a severe case of loneliness.

“Even if you’re on an online video call with 20 people, you’re often muted, and it’s not very synchronous,” said Barsade. “That’s not going to do it.”

She suggested that to ease their at-home employees’ isolation, companies should make sure they conduct smaller group meetings and encourage workers to maintain social connections.

“Pick up the phone,” she said. “Email isn’t going to do it. This requires vigilance on all sides. People need to think about avoiding unintentionally ostracizing people. This is a time when it’s even more important to reach out to that person you think might be lonely.”