In Absence of Others

Sep 29, 2023 | Looking Forward to...., Projects

In Absence of Others

Dr Karolina Nieberle (IAS Associate Fellow, Department of Psychology)
Dr Janey Zheng (IAS Asociate Fellow IAS, Department of Marketing and Management)

Remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic was life-changing for millions of people, and the flexibility to work remotely has since been highly valued among employees. However, the new normal may come with risks, as evidenced by a rising number of employees who claim that they feel lonely at work. Feeling lonely at work is a concerning issue with consequences for individual employees (e.g., impaired health) and organizations (e.g., increased turnover rates).

However, remote work cannot fully explain why employees feel lonely at work. More than eight out of ten people who regularly work in the office report that they have felt lonely. As a subjective experience, loneliness does not require being objectively alone, and the key reasons why people feel lonely at work may not necessarily be rooted in the structure of their work. Given the prevalence of loneliness at work, it is surprising how little is understood about the reasons why loneliness at work begins and prevails. The Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) is running a project to explore the experience of loneliness in working adults with managerial responsibilities. The project will explore questions such as: When and why do managers feel lonely at work? How does loneliness at work affect managers’ work and life? How does loneliness impact managers’ self-perception as a leader?

Managers are of particular interest when it comes to the experience of loneliness. Despite rarely being physically alone, managers are highly vulnerable to loneliness. Managers spend most of their work time in interactions with others. However, their formal role and associated responsibilities set them apart from their team, so managers often struggle to build and maintain meaningful relationships during their day-to-day work. How people self-define at work is closely related to meaningful cues from the social environment, so one compelling question is: In times when managers lack meaningful relationships, how do they know how to see and define themselves?

The IAS project combines psychological, management, and sociological perspectives with the goal of uncovering (1) when and why managers feel lonely at work, (2) how the experience of loneliness is linked to broader themes in the organization and society, and (3) how different experiences of loneliness shape and are shaped by managers’ self-perceptions. In the academic year 2022/2023, the project conducted developmental activities in the form of a panel discussion and pilot interviews to generate ideas and further shape the research agenda.

In March 2023, the project PIs Dr Karolina Nieberle and Dr Janey Zheng hosted a panel discussion and workshop event on “Aloneness and Identity at Work” that brought together Durham academics from a wide range of departments to discuss different perspectives on aloneness and identity at work. The event discussed both scholarly (e.g., research on loneliness and solitude in different disciplines) and experience-based perspectives (e.g., experiences in managerial roles as HoD or Principal). One of the key takeaways was that cultural and institutional aspects (e.g., formalized hierarchies, appropriateness of close relationships at work, the extent to which co-leadership is supported and valued) may play a central role in shaping how much managers seek to connect with others and how they experience aloneness at work. Participating panellists were Professor Nadin Beckmann (Education), Dr Susan Frenk (Principal of St. Aidan’s College), Professor Kate Hampshire (Anthropology), Dr Thuy-vy Nguyen (Psychology), Professor Fuschia Sirois (Psychology), and the project members Prof Olga Epitropaki (Management) and Dr Keming Yang (Sociology).

Conversations with six managers from different organizations and cultural backgrounds further revealed that managers framed the experience of loneliness differently. Some managers described it as a natural but disliked part of being a leader, while others experienced it as a severe impairment to being the type of leader they would like to be. Again, others described it as something that confirms or protects their leadership self. For example, one manager reported purposefully withdrawing themselves from the team during certain periods of time (e.g., annual appraisal processes) to protect themselves and their employees from being too close. Overall, an interesting finding was that the meaning that managers attached to ‘being a leader’ informed how they evaluated their experience of loneliness: The more leadership was seen as being centered around building relationships (e.g., supporting and mentoring others), the more loneliness was viewed as a dysfunctional component of leadership. Building on these insights, the IAS project plans further activities during the Michaelmas term 2023. In particular, an experience sampling study with UK managers will be conducted to quantify managers’ daily experiences of loneliness at work and the extent to which it affects their self-perception and experiences at work and in life.

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