Work But Really Lonely
Write a message


  • What is my age:
  • 18


The social connection that comes with a job can be really beneficial to our work, and to our lives.


He is tired, sick, sad, and alone in his misery. His remark expresses the persistent idea that leaders tend to be isolated and lonely.

Modern research supports this claim. Friendship at work is crucial to happiness for most people. Among employees and managers studied by the human-resource advisory firm Future Workplace and the workplace-wellness company Virgin Pulse, more than 90 percent said they have friends from work, 70 percent said friendship at work is the most important element to a happy work life, and 58 percent said they would turn down a higher-paying job if it meant not getting along with co-workers.

Read: The pandemic is changing work friendships. But people at the top often miss out on workplace friendships, and they may suffer mightily as a result. According to one finding in the Harvard Business Reviewfor example, half of CEOs experience loneliness on the job, and most of them feel loneliness hinders their work performance.

Studies also have shown that loneliness is linked to burnout among leaders. Professionally successful people—and those climbing the ladder to leadership—need to know how to manage this problem. Consider the famous study in which the Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked working women to describe how they felt about the moments in their day, from the joyful to the stressful. The positive side of the ledger yielded few surprises: People were happiest while having sex, socializing, and relaxing, and most enjoyed the time spent with their friends, relatives, and spouses.

The activities that produced the most negative feelings were working, child care sorry, kidsand commuting. The second- and third-most-negative interaction partners were clients and co-workers. And the No. The boss. The lonely boss.

The nature of the boss-employee relationship often makes it hard for either side to connect with the other on a purely human-to-human level. One study from found that bosses believe subordinates in a workplace lose their sense of free will about being pleasant with the person at the top—you are unfriendly to the boss at your peril—which makes things uncomfortable and awkward.

More recent research has shown that subordinates might want to shun friendship with a boss because, paradoxically, it can actually result in bias against the employee. And one study found that people often treat their professional superiors the way they treated authority figures from earlier in their lives, such as parents or teachers.

Workplace tips & wellbeing

People with authority isolate themselves, as well. The sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, along with the poet Reuel Denney, famously claimed in their bookThe Lonely Crowdthat leaders are lonely because their success requires the manipulation and persuasion of others. As such, they objectify subordinates every bit as much as subordinates objectify them. Later research found that leaders often purposely distance themselves from employees so they can appraise their performance fairly.

Some of this has to do with the sheer of hours spent at work. That rings true to me: I doubt I ever worked less than a hour week in the entire decade that I was the chief executive of a Washington, D. Many leaders work much more than this, leaving little time to cultivate outside relationships.

Lonely leaders who work crushing hours often tell me they have no choice if they want to succeed. When I dig a little, I usually find symptoms of a common disease among successful people: workaholism. Since Oates introduced the concept, workaholism has gotten a lot of attention from psychologists, who believe that it is a real and rising problem in American life.

Generally speaking, it can be diagnosed by asking questions such as whether someone works far beyond what is required and, in so doing, neglects other parts of their life. In my experience, workaholics also exhibit more classic addictive behavior, such as sneaking around to do work and feeling threatened or angry when loved ones suggest they should work less.

17 easy things to do when you’re feeling lonely

Why do people behave this way? The psychologist Barbara Killinger argued that workaholics tend to be perfectionists and possess an unhealthy fear of failure. From the September issue: Is there really such a thing as a workaholic? Wrapped up in their fear and obsession, workaholics—like all people controlled by their addictive behavior—leave little room in their lives for friends, family, and even God.

But there are things leaders can do to make life at the top less lonely—and those strategies can help people still climbing the ladder, as well.

Solving the workaholism problem requires complete honesty. Workaholic leaders lie to themselves all the time. This is a hard problem, but it will never be solved without admitting that there is a problem in the first place. Acknowledging this truth also requires facing what the workaholic is avoiding with the extra hour. If it is dysfunctional relationships—possibly brought on by years of neglect—it will only get worse by indulging the addiction.

How to beat feeling lonely and isolated while you work

To escape his addiction, the workaholic has to reapportion time and use it to reestablish friendships and family life. From the November issue: Why you never see your friends anymore.

Take the case of Ben Franklin. The club provided Franklin an outlet where he could develop real friendships, speak freely, seek advice, and develop ideas. He had stumbled across one of the secrets to success without loneliness: building your own intimate community outside of work.

Some people do this through golf; others through Bible study. Anyone can benefit from creating opportunities to socialize outside the office, but leaders often need these intentional friendships particularly acutely. Read: The scheduling woes of adult friendship. It can indeed be lonely at the top. But loneliness is not a necessary condition of success, any more than unpaid taxes are a condition of making a lot of money. It is just a cost one must face honestly, and manage.

Why it’s so lonely at the top

And, unlike taxes, loneliness can be defeated. Furthermore, the management and remediation of loneliness—to seek and give love—is its own reward. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword.

Popular users


Despite working with lots of people, moving away from friends and family for his dream job left Lloyd feeling lonely, isolated and eventually depressed.


Whether you're feeling down about the of comments on your latest Instagram post, or just have that sense that no one else really gets you, you've experienced it.