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Loneliness in the workplace has received relatively little attention in the literature. The research surrounding loneliness tends to focus almost exclusively on personal characteristics as the primary determinant of the experience, and largely ignores the workplace as a potential trigger of loneliness. As such, personality tends to be overestimated as the reason for loneliness, whilst only modest emphasis is given to environmental factors, such as organisational environments. Therefore, the overall aim of this thesis was to explore the notion of loneliness in the workplace, with a particular emphasis on examining the antecedents and outcomes of its development in work contexts. The first stage of the research included the development and empirical examination of a scale measuring work-related loneliness. A 16-item scale was constructed and tested for its reliability and factor structure on a sample of 514 employees from various organisations. Exploratory factor analysis indicated two factors best represent the data, namely Social Companionship and Emotional Deprivation at Work. For the main study, a theoretical model was constructed whereby various antecedents (personal characteristics, social support, job characteristics, and emotional climate) were hypothesised to influence the development of work-related loneliness, which in turn was thought to affect employee attitudes and wellbeing. Employees from various organisations were invited to participate in the online research via email, which generated 362 submissions from diverse occupational groups. Structural equation modelling techniques were used to assess the hypothesised model, which was evaluated against a number of fit criteria. The initial results provided limited support for the Loneliness at Work Model. Consequently, a number of adjustments were necessary to obtain sufficient fit. The modified model suggests that organisational climate (comprising climate of fear, community spirit at work, and organisational fit) serves to simultaneously predict the emotional deprivation factor of loneliness (made up of seven items) and employee attitude and wellbeing. The results indicate that environmental factors such as fear, lack of community spirit, and value congruence play a role in the experience of work-related loneliness and have an overall negative effect on employee withdrawal behaviours and job satisfaction. The findings from this study offer insight into possible areas for organisational intervention and future research.
An Overview of the Research
“I’m feeling very lonely at work. I can spend an entire day here without
anyone in my department talking to me. I am usually very friendly and
chatty and make friends wherever I work. I can’t seem to get people here
to warm up at all – they’re nice but not very sociable. It depresses me, and
now I feel as if I hate my job and everyone here.”
The note above was recently posted on a British work and career website
(; Mitchell, 2003). In responding to this person’s post, a counsellor
provided advice focussing on the individual’s negative reaction to their work
environment. The counsellor advised that the lonely person was being self-interested
in not demonstrating a reciprocal interest with other employees in the organisation.
Moreover, according to the counsellor, if this individual happened to look upon their
job as an opportunity to socialise it could be misconstrued and resented by fellow co-
workers. In this ‘Aunt Agatha’ type response, the source of the employee’s loneliness
rests entirely with the individual’s self-indulgent social perception, despite their
reported gregarious nature. While it is true that many lonely people fail to capitalise
on interpersonal engagements (Marangoni & Ickes, 1989) and learn to expect
rejection from others (Goswick & Jones, 1981), research shows that loneliness has no
relationship with self-focus (Green & Wildermuth, 1993), despite popular opinion
indicating that loneliness is driven by self-centred cognitions and behaviours.
In essence, the advice given to the lonely worker makes no mention of possible
mitigating factors contributing to their feelings of loneliness. Such extenuating factors
could include for example, the social and emotional climate of the organisation,
support from supervisors and co-workers, or heavy workload and pressure. Whilst it is
recognised that personality, shyness and social competence do play a significant role
in the development of loneliness (e.g. Wittenberg & Reis, 1986) recurring
organisational factors are often overlooked as reasons for the onset of work-based
The overall purpose of this thesis is to consider the role of loneliness in the
workplace, and to explore the antecedents and outcomes of its development in the
work environment. Therefore, the goal of this introductory chapter is to briefly
consider the nature and objectives of the research topic and to introduce the
components of the study, each of which will be detailed more fully in subsequent
Background to the Study
It is generally agreed by contemporary researchers that loneliness is a psychological
state that results from deficiencies in a person’s social relationships, either
qualitatively or quantitatively (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). Research suggests that
loneliness is a distressing experience, which is detrimental to psychological health and
wellbeing (Murphy & Kupshik, 1992). When asked, most people can quite readily
report whether or not they feel lonely, and in fact few people go through life and
escape the feelings of being lonely. However, loneliness is often perceived as a selfish
pursuit which is driven by interpersonal incompetence or social inhibition. Both in
research settings and in the wider population, there appears to be a ‘blame the victim’
mentality for the development of loneliness. As such, personal factors tend to be
overestimated as reasons for social difficulties, whilst only modest emphasis is given
to environmental factors. However, it is reasonable to assume not all people are lonely
simply because of their disposition. Indeed, there are social situations and
environmental characteristics that can contribute to or bring about loneliness.
In order to understand loneliness more accurately, one must not only consider the
personality of the individual and the ways in which they operate in their social
environment, but also the ways in which the social environment operates on the
individual, either causing or perpetuating loneliness. When the environment is not
fulfilling social provisions adequately, a usually well-adjusted sociable character can
develop the behaviours and thought processes typically attributable to lonely
individuals (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998). It is therefore just as likely that loneliness
stems in part from factors in the person’s social environment (including the
individual’s place of work) rather than being exclusively determined by personal
deficiencies. Characteristics of the working environment might therefore be
considered “loneliness-provoking factors” (de Jong-Gierveld, 1987, p. 127).
As a general rule, fostering healthy social relationships is important for the effective
functioning of an organisation and is considered a necessary prerequisite for
organisational health (Moore, 1996; Pfeifer & Veiga, 1999). In many cases,
workplace relationships provide companionship for individuals who may not find it
elsewhere. However, in some work environments the emphasis is often on individual
achievement and competitiveness, volatility, and impersonal social relationships. Such
alienating values can hinder the development of sincere relationships, and can
potentially conjure up feelings of isolation and loneliness. Although work is largely a
social institution, for some employees merely being in a social environment is not
sufficient to conquer feelings of loneliness, as was depicted in the opening quote.
Most relationships in the workplace are heavily influenced by organisational and job
characteristics, such as hierarchical structure, individual competition, and seniority. In
some extreme cases, organisations strongly discourage friendship at work for fear of
improper behaviour or reduced productivity (Berman, West & Richter, 2002). Despite
workplace policy however, it would be expected that a large proportion of employees
anticipate some sort of natural socialisation process, which leads to the development
of social relationships at work.
Significance of the Study
Despite its pervasiveness in society, the experience of loneliness at work has
generated little conceptual discussion and empirical substantiation. In Peplau and
Perlman’s (1982) edited book on loneliness, there are five chapters on the
developmental perspectives of loneliness. The first chapter discusses childhood
loneliness, the second studies loneliness during adolescence while the third chapter
examines loneliness during the transition to college. The fourth and fifth chapters then
jump to studying loneliness amongst widows or the elderly. There is no mention of
the development of loneliness during the years 20-70. It could well be that very few
people suffer from loneliness during this time, however a conclusion of this nature is
doubtful. Rokach and Brock (1997) have reviewed the literature on loneliness across
the life changes and suggest that loneliness is prevalent during childhood,
adolescence, retirement, and older age. However, there is very limited research
examining loneliness during an adult’s working years where career and family roles
are often at their most demanding, in terms of time and available resources. As such,
the role of work and the workplace environment have not been appreciated in the
loneliness literature or in empirical studies on the development of loneliness. While it
is important to study loneliness in vulnerable groups and to isolate effective
treatments, it is also equally important to examine loneliness across a wider range of
the population to allow for valid and generalisable conclusions and interventions.
To date, and to the author’s knowledge, only a small number of published studies
have specifically examined the nature of loneliness in the workplace. Few, if any,
studies have specifically mentioned how the culture of the organisation can affect
social isolation and loneliness. Borrowing concepts from the poet Wordsworth (de
Botton, 2002), who accused cities of fostering life-destroying emotions, organisations
too can harbour unpleasantness, which erodes the potential benefits of being part of a
working community. Individuals within the work environment may feel anxious about
their employment status or position within the organisational hierarchy. Moreover, in
a fearful, untrusting or self-serving environment, some organisations have the
potential (either through their operations or through their organisational culture) to
foster an ‘anxious’ environment where genuine or sincere social relationships with
other co-workers are not feasible. Such an environment would, to some extent, have a
negative effect on even the most gregarious, sociable individuals. Such notions have
not however been examined, either theoretically or empirically. Moreover, despite the
number of existing scales available to measure various aspects of loneliness, no
published scale specifically measures loneliness at work. It would therefore appear
that loneliness in the workplace is a neglected topic worthy of further exploration,
particularly in the realm of organisational psychology.
Why Study Loneliness at Work?
Perhaps the most simple and obvious answer to this question is that loneliness is an
intuitively interesting phenomenon. Indeed, it is a fact of life for millions of people on
a daily basis, and as such tends to have an appeal to a wide-ranging audience.
Furthermore, it appears the topic has not previously been studied in any great depth,
which makes it more valuable for doctoral research. More broadly however,
loneliness is an experience that can have detrimental consequences; it is therefore
important to recognise where it stems from and the best way to overcome or manage
it. Because workplaces can potentially exhibit characteristics that can lead to social
and emotional isolation, the potential for work-related loneliness to be a personal or
an organisational problem should not be overlooked. Loneliness reflects a breakdown
in social interaction and the quality of interpersonal relationships. Studying loneliness
may therefore give us insight into communication problems in the workplace, or
denote the manifestation of a negative organisational climate. It is also equally
important for Employee Assistance counsellors, or other mental health workers to
have a better understanding of what mediates and influences loneliness in the
workplace, in order to provide effective interventions.
An obvious question to ask regarding this type of research is ‘what difference does it
make whether or not people are lonely at work?’ Additionally, one may query why
this is an important phenomenon for organisational psychologists to analyse and
understand. As an aside, it is important to recognise here that the aim of the research
is not to suggest that loneliness should be, or can be, completely eliminated. Many
employees, particularly those new to management roles would expect to experience a
certain degree of loneliness, which may provide important regulatory feedback.
However, recognising and appreciating the conditions in which people feel lonely at
work may contribute to efforts to avert the more severe, persisting consequences that
can result from being chronically lonely. Feeling lonely at work may also affect one’s
reasoning, decision making ability, and withdrawal behaviour which may have an
adverse impact on personal and organisational effectiveness.
To enable further enquiry into loneliness, it is first necessary to develop a theoretical
platform from which future research endeavours can be built. In many respects, the
present research would perhaps have been more appealing to a wider audience if it
were to research specific issues relating to loneliness, such as examining lay beliefs
(e.g. ‘lonely at the top’) or studying loneliness in particular occupational groups.
However, such inquiries cannot be answered sufficiently until preliminary research
examines the theoretical foundations of loneliness at work, the measurement of the
phenomenon, and whether the organisational environment does in fact contribute to
loneliness in the workplace.
In their conclusion Marangoni and Ickes (1989, p.124) note that “… in addition to the
variables documented to be individually and interactively influential in the experience
of loneliness, researchers should focus greater attention on the domain where such
variables would be most acutely felt: in the individual’s ongoing, long-term,
naturalistic patterns of relationship formation, elaboration and dissolution”. What
better place to start than the workforce; an institution that consumes the majority of
waking hours and absorbs most of our social opportunities?
Research Objectives and Purpose of the Study
In essence, the research described in this thesis is designed to augment our
understanding of loneliness and to explore the influence the workplace environment
has on the development of loneliness. The research has four broad objectives, which
formed the basis for the study:
1 To develop a conceptual understanding and definition of loneliness in the
workplace through canvassing existing literature and research.
2 To develop a psychometrically robust scale to measure loneliness at work.
3 To develop a theoretical model for loneliness at work based on relevant
literature and anecdotal evidence.
4 To test the theoretical model developed in objective 3 for degree of fit, using
structural equation modelling.
The concepts from the following two chapters on loneliness and loneliness at work
will be carried into subsequent chapters on the development of the Loneliness at Work
Scale, the generation of a ‘Loneliness at Work’ model, and model testing. A general
discussion from these studies will be presented and the thesis drawn to a conclusion,
with recommendations for future research.
The Concept of Loneliness
The phenomenon of loneliness is not easy to conceptualise, yet it is readily reported
by many people in a wide range of social circumstances. The importance of
loneliness is often reflected in self-help books and in the media, signifying an ever-
present societal problem. Celebrities, for instance are often commenting on the
loneliness of stardom, despite their social revelry. Judy Garland once reported ‘If I am
a legend, then why am I so lonely? Let me tell you, legends are all very well if you’ve
got somebody who loves you’. Allen Fromme (1965) who wrote a pocket book on the
ability to love argued that loneliness is like the common cold, in that it is easy to
catch, difficult to cure, rarely fatal but always unpleasant and sometimes wretched
beyond bearing. Loneliness is also a regular topic of enquiry for callers to Lifeline; a
telephone counselling service based in New Zealand. According to 2003 statistics
approximately 5000 of the 20,000 calls received by Lifeline related to loneliness,
reflecting a widespread and pervasive problem.
It is the intention of this chapter to present a conceptual discussion of loneliness
followed by a relevant and brief overview of the various theories and empirical
literature on the topic. This chapter cannot comprehensively cover all the literature on
all aspects of loneliness. To do so would mean canvassing several thousand pieces of
literature which could result in tedium and redundancy. Loneliness is a
psychologically complex and involved phenomenon, and traverses a wide range of
psychological disciplines. For instance, loneliness tends to relate to developmental,
cognitive, behavioural, social, biological, and abnormal psychology. Furthermore, the
study of loneliness invokes wide-ranging theoretical and methodological issues within
each of those subject areas.
Given the ubiquitous nature of loneliness it is not surprising to find a vast empirical
base of loneliness literature spanning various disciplines. However, the majority of the
research reflects studies on children, adolescents, college students, the elderly, and
other social groups expected to be lonely. Such studies, although interesting and valid
in themselves, are not fundamental to the present aims of the research. The purpose of
the literature review therefore is to provide a précis and critique of the theoretical and
empirical literature which is, in part relevant to the issue of loneliness in
A Brief History on the Study of Loneliness
Although psychologists have been concerned with loneliness since the 1950s, it has
only recently become the focus of substantial research. It was not until the 1970s
research on loneliness really began to proliferate, largely stimulated by the publication
of Robert Weiss’s seminal book in 1973 on emotional and social isolation. This
publication fostered the subsequent development of psychometric scales to measure
individual differences in loneliness (e.g. Russell, Peplau & Ferguson, 1978). As such,
research on loneliness has flourished over the past three decades, stimulating an
extensive and wide ranging empirical base
. Given the social and demographic
changes in the Western world which tend to foster social isolation, such as the high
divorce rate, the number of people living alone, poverty and poor health, and the
inherent interest in loneliness, it is not surprising that a vast amount of psychological
literature has emerged in recent decades.
Early articles on loneliness (of which there are only 35 published prior to 1970) are
almost exclusively based on psychiatric commentary as it relates to clinical
dysfunctions and psychopathology. Theoretical and clinical literature prior to the
1970s focussed heavily on abnormal mental processes and studied loneliness in
conjunction with narcissism, paranoid syndrome, compulsion, psychopathology and
alcoholism. Research since this time however has largely focussed on the gathering
of quantitative data rather than on clinical observations. Much of the research
originating from the late 1970s has been carried out in the United States, particularly
by members of Anne Peplau’s loneliness programme at UCLA. This research has
been particularly concerned with the measurement of loneliness and the link between
loneliness and different types of personality characteristics.
Throughout this thesis, readers may observe the majority of references are cited from the 1970s and
1980s. This represents the state of loneliness literature, in that the most influential theoretical and
conceptual research stemmed from this period. Much of the recent work on loneliness is based on
particular aspects of loneliness in specific cohorts of participants.
Despite recent research endeavours, it is surprising that the study of loneliness has
been slow and sporadic in its development, given it is a well recognised and common
experience for most people. Peplau and Perlman (1982) hypothesised two reasons
why the study of loneliness has historically received minimal attention compared to
other psychological constructs. Firstly, a great number of people are embarrassed to
admit they are lonely, as to do so means acknowledging social failure. Loneliness
tends to represent a societal stigma and portrays far-reaching social and emotional
characteristics that may or may not be an accurate representation of the lonely
individual. Research consistently suggests that lonely individuals are characterised
negatively by others, in that they are rated poorly in terms of psychosocial functioning
and interpersonal attraction (e.g. Lau & Green, 1992). Furthermore, Peplau and
Perlman (1982) argue that this stigma spills over to researchers investigating
loneliness. Researchers (and the present author is no exception) may worry that when
people find out they are studying loneliness, they will inadvertently think the
researcher has unresolved personal problems that are manifesting themselves in their
research topic. This is typically an inaccurate assumption, as although studying
loneliness requires a certain degree of empathic and experiential understanding of the
phenomenon, the research requires a certain degree of reflective objectivity and
detachment. In other words, it is unlikely a researcher could approach the topic
impartially if they were suffering from the distress of loneliness.
An additional reason why loneliness research has been slow to gain momentum is that
there is no convenient or ethical way to manipulate loneliness in the favoured
experimental setting. It would rarely be permissible or psychologically possible to
accurately manipulate respondents to feel more or less lonely at any given moment.
As such, no appropriate or reliable method of manipulating levels of loneliness has
emerged in the empirical literature. Given this, researchers often have to ask
respondents to recall a time when they felt lonely. However, according to theorists
such as Weiss (1973) and Fromm-Reichmann (1959) loneliness is such an intensively
negative experience, an individual’s memory of it is actively rejected. When pressed
to remember self-confessed periods of loneliness, many individuals are reluctant to
recall their feelings of loneliness and downplay the distress. Weiss (1973) indicated
that an individual who is not presently lonely disassociates with the self who
experienced the loneliness, and therefore their memory of the experience is distorted.
As such, requiring research participants to recall lonely feelings can prove
methodologically troublesome for research into loneliness.
Perhaps another reason for the sluggish development of loneliness research is that it
does not belong to any one discipline; it can be studied by psychologists, sociologists,
physicians, anthropologists, and so on. Wood (1986) argues that loneliness is a
fundamental or basic emotion and one of the most powerful human experiences. She
argues that the feelings associated with loneliness alert individuals to their absence of
social relationships. However, it is questionable whether loneliness is in fact an
emotion. The theoretical literature on loneliness (which will be reviewed in
subsequent sections) tends to conceptualise the concept as being associated with
certain emotions, rather than being an emotion in itself. Despite this however,
loneliness is rarely studied specifically by emotion researchers. Rather, it is more
often seen as a ‘social problem’. However, it is also seen as a ‘psychological
problem’, a ‘psychiatric problem’ a ‘cultural problem’, a ‘socio-economic problem’
and a ‘biological problem’. As such, the research movement has not embodied and
advanced the study of loneliness within one framework. On reviewing the literature
on loneliness, there is an impression that the topic has a disjointed set of theoretical
underpinnings and empirical foundations, which could account for its sporadic and
fragmented development as a research topic.
Defining and Conceptualising Loneliness
The words ‘lonely’ or ‘loneliness’ have been given both objective and subjective
meanings in their common everyday usage. They are often used in the mass media to
refer to isolation, aloneness, solitude or social dysfunction. However, through their
broad and wide-ranging use the words have lost their specificity. Loneliness also has
various meanings for researchers working in the field of loneliness, and it has further
meanings or explanations by clinicians working with the lonely. Such diverse use of
the language does not portray the distinction between loneliness caused by being
alone and loneliness caused by the symbolic or emotional absence of other people.
Strictly speaking however, loneliness is a subjective construct; a self-perceived
interpersonal deficiency revealing how an individual experiences the discrepancy
between their personal relationships and their social environment (Peplau & Perlman,
The nature of how loneliness has been defined has emerged over time, appearing at
first to be an all engulfing and undifferentiated painful experience (e.g. Moustakas,
1961) to a more refined conceptualisation including types of loneliness that have
different antecedents and various manifestations (e.g. Rokach, 1985; Rook, 1988).
Early writings on loneliness defined the concept as “the exceedingly unpleasant and
driving experience connected with inadequate discharge of the need for human
intimacy …” (Sullivan, 1953, p. 290). In 1973 Weiss brought about significant
advances in the study of loneliness and defined it as “the response to the absence of
some particular type of relationship” (Weiss, 1973, p. 17). Weiss and other
researchers such as Fromm-Reichmann (1959), approached loneliness from an
intimacy perceptive, emphasising the inherent and widespread need for intimate
connection. Sermat (1978), expanding upon Weiss’ work, defined loneliness as “an
experienced discrepancy between the kinds of interpersonal relationships the
individual perceives himself as having at the time, and the kinds of relationships he
would like to have, either in terms of his past experience or some ideal state that he
has actually never experienced” (p. 274).
Peplau and Perlman (1982) have collectively summarised the various definitions of
loneliness in their seminal editorial on the construct. There appears to be three major
points of convergence among the diverse conceptualisations of loneliness. First,
loneliness results from deficiencies in a person’s social relationships, either
quantitatively or qualitatively. Second, loneliness is a subjective experience as it is not
synonymous with objective social isolation. Third, the experience of loneliness is
unpleasant and distressing. Peplau and Perlman outline two principles which form the
basis for their framework on loneliness. Firstly, loneliness is a response to a
discrepancy between desired and achieved levels of social contact, and secondly,
cognitive processes have a moderating influence on feelings of loneliness. The
authors assert that while it is helpful to distinguish between the antecedents of
loneliness, the experience of being lonely, and the ways in which individuals cope
with it, the causal connection between these factors is complex and likely to be
Fundamentally, most contemporary theorists agree (to a greater or lesser extent) that
loneliness is a psychological state that results from deficiencies in a person’s social
relationships, either qualitatively or quantitatively (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). Rook
(1984a, p. 1391) describes loneliness as an “enduring condition of emotional distress
that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others
and/or lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities
that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy”.
Such a definition excludes those people who chose to limit or refrain from social
In more recent times there have been a number of articles theorising on the
experiential nature of loneliness. In his account of loneliness Killeen (1998) described
loneliness as a pervasive, distressing and debilitating condition that can affect a wide
range of people. He comments that loneliness “can make you feel as though you are
the only person in the world ... it can make you feel totally isolated and useless; that
your life is without purpose. It can make you look for other things to fill the painful
abyss of your life … all in all, it is a very destructive condition, and it can cause a
vicious downward spiral, because the more lonely one becomes, the more one is
isolated even further from ‘normal’ society, and without care, one can ‘go under’” (p.
763). He goes on to say that loneliness “is there in the morning, keeps you company
for the rest of the day, and goes to bed with you at night. It is horrible, wretched state
of being, and at the same time, is a strange chameleon-like phenomenon. It is as
individual as your every thought … one moment you are feeling alone but
comfortable; the next minute you feel like you are the only person in the world …” (p.
769). In this way Killeen perceives loneliness as a chronic trait-like characteristic
perpetuated by a self-focussed society, and as such it never really goes away.
Given such diverse definitions ranging from scientific classification to
phenomenological accounts, it appears that loneliness is made up of a myriad of
subjective and emotional responses that come together as a multifaceted experience.
In itself, it is a highly individual and ambiguous construct, which lacks a specific or
defining set of cognitions, emotions, or behaviour (Marangoni & Ickes, 1989). As
such, there is no single defining feature to the experience of loneliness, but rather
various subjective clusters of feelings, thoughts and behaviours which lead a person to
conclude ‘I am lonely’ (Peplau & Perlman, 1982).
An issue with defining loneliness is the difficulty in merging the relatively objective
concept of the social and psychological condition with the experiential aspects of the
phenomenon. Scientifically robust definitions, as discussed above, are useful for
methodological purposes, however the experience of loneliness is such that its
descriptors are often a more accurate representation. For example, it is indeed difficult
to define what a piece of chocolate is, or any food which is unique in flavour, texture
or quality. A technical definition for chocolate could be ‘a food made from roasted
ground cacao beans’. However, such a definition lacks the experiential nature of the
entity. It is generally more palatable to describe the experience of eating the
chocolate, to savour it oneself, and to determine what it actually is, how it tastes, and
how it feels when tasted. A technical definition will rarely conjure up the experience
of savouring the unique item of food. And so it is with loneliness. Most people can
describe what it feels like to be lonely, even describe the situation and the thoughts
that preceded the onset of loneliness, but a reliable scientifically useful definition is
much more problematic. Most definitions of loneliness fail to capture the experiential
aspects of the phenomenon, and as such suffer from criterion deficiency. Definitions
are by nature, objective ‘truths’ about phenomena, however, most definitions of
experiential-based phenomena fail to take into account the subjective truth. In essence
however, it is relatively easier to describe what something is like, than to accurately or
reliably define it. This issue is not however unique to loneliness. In the development
of psychological theories and constructs, theorists tend to use metaphors to derive a
sense of what cannot be tangibly seen or touched (De Botton, 2001). This reflects a
statement by Rook (1988) in which she argues that researchers should take a
differentiated view of loneliness, recognising distinctions among types of loneliness
and incorporating this differentiation into research methodologies.
Despite the murkiness in defining loneliness operationally, individuals can quite
readily report whether or not they feel lonely. Loneliness seems to be a term that has
an intuitive and familiar meaning to most people. When individuals in research
studies are asked about loneliness, most readily respond without needing to have the
term clarified (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). Loneliness manifests itself in different ways
in different contexts, however most people know intuitively what loneliness means.
Ask them to define their conceptual referent however, and a myriad of diverse
personal anecdotes are usually provided, usually in the form of vague feelings of
dissatisfaction and other psychological problems, such as depression, marginalisation
and social anxiety. However, like depression, loneliness is an ambiguous concept with
multiple meanings. Although several definitions have had significant value from the
standpoint of stimulating empirical work and theory development (e.g. Peplau &
Perlman, 1982; Weiss, 1973) a single, universally accepted definition of loneliness
has not been adopted by scholars. Rook (1988) urges researchers to move away from
a global, undifferentiated view of loneliness toward a more differentiated perspective
that recognises distinctions among types of loneliness.
In defining loneliness, it is therefore too simplistic to dichotomise individuals into
‘lonely’ and ‘non-lonely’ groups. This categorisation assumes that there is a critical
level where one does or does not feel lonely at any given time (Suedfeld, 1987). Much
like consuming food, there is a process (and a passage of time) from feeling
gnawingly hungry to grossly full. As such, there is not often an exact or objective
volume of food that makes us feel satisfied and satiated day in and day out. Moreover,
there is no critical level when satiation has been achieved, as we are often not aware
of over eating until we are fit to bursting. Similarly with loneliness, there is no
critical cut-off between experiencing complete fulfilment in our relationships to
crippling feelings of loneliness. It is therefore more accurate to represent the construct
in terms of the degree of perceived deficiency, in that someone experiencing severe
and unwelcome deficiencies in their social and intimate relationships would be
extremely lonely, whereas someone who from time to time feels a bit disheartened
with their relationships would only feel mildly lonely.
Given the complexities that arise from individual differences in feelings of loneliness,
realistic definitions encompass the subjective and multidimensional aspects of
loneliness, recognising that it is made up of perceptual, cognitive, physiological, and
emotional factors. Whichever way loneliness is defined however, it is a complex and
powerful set of feelings, encompassing reactions to the psychological absence of
intimate and social needs. In essence, loneliness remains a nebulous construct.
However, as a point of reference for the remainder of the research and to move ahead
with the literature review, loneliness can be viewed as the distressing and subjective
deficiency between an individual’s real and ideal social environment, in terms of
social and intimate relationships.
Distinguishing Loneliness from Similar Psychological Constructs
When people think about the word loneliness, they are often referring to, or
associating it with interpersonal isolation. Loneliness tends to highlight the feeling of
being alone, either emotionally, socially or geographically. However, without the
longing or desire to be with another individual or group of individuals (real or
imaginary), aloneness and isolation do not qualify as true loneliness (Hartog, Audy &
Cohen, 1980). For instance, when an individual is spending time with a friend, the
individual is neither lonely nor alone. According to Mijuskovic (1979) whenever
genuine feelings of friendship are present, then loneliness is muted in consciousness.
Because of the complexity of loneliness, its everyday usage is often confused with
other terms such as aloneness, isolation, alienation, solitude, lack of social support,
and depression. Each of the following sections delineates loneliness in relation to
these constructs. As will be evidenced in these discussions, although loneliness shares
characteristics with other emotional states and the terminology is often used
interchangeably, the loneliness construct exhibits a unique quality.
Aloneness is the objective condition of being by oneself. People’s perception of, and
reactions to aloneness can vary considerably, ranging from contentment to loneliness
(Burger, 1995). Spending time alone is not invariably associated with loneliness, as
people can be very content in their seclusion. Everyday language often refers to
aloneness as the feeling of being by oneself, rather than actually being alone. In
contrast to loneliness, which refers to an undesirable social reality caused by
unfulfilled social and emotional needs, aloneness can indicate a certain degree of
choice in wanting to be by oneself, and the ability to control one’s personal space. As
such, choosing to be alone is often the preferred choice over social company for many
people, and does not imply the pain associated with loneliness.
While aloneness is not synonymous with loneliness, an objective and chronic
deficiency in social relationships is a key antecedent that can lead to loneliness.
Larson, Csikszentmihalyi and Graef (1982) conducted research to investigate the
subjective experience of being alone. Their study, conducted on a sample of 75
adolescents and 107 adults, indicated that aloneness improved concentration; however
it also diminished the individual’s mood. Respondents in the study reported feeling
less happy, less cheerful, less sociable, and less excited when they were alone than
when they were with others. According to this study being alone during daily life was
correlated with increased negative characteristics, such as sadness, irritability,
boredom and loneliness. In general, it would be expected that people are more likely
to feel lonely when they are by themselves for extended periods of time (Killeen,
Isolation is similar to aloneness, except the circumstances in which one is isolated are
not under one’s control. In the literature, isolation usually refers to the restriction of
social relationships due to the physical environment, such as being imprisoned or
hospitalised. Rather than being perceptually based, isolation refers to the objective
condition of having few social ties, a lack of integration into current social networks,
the diminution of communication with others and being cut off from intimate ties for
an extended period of time (Rook, 1984a). As such, isolation is more of an objective
condition than it is a subjective experience. However, being alone or isolated is not
equivalent to being lonely. Although isolation is one of the strongest predictors of
feeling lonely in daily life, isolation is a separate construct from the experience of
loneliness (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998). One can be isolated without feeling lonely, and
one can feel lonely without being isolated. As people move into more isolated
conditions however, there is typically a concomitant rise in feelings of loneliness. In
essence, although the terms isolation and loneliness are used interchangeably both in
psychological literature and everyday language, there are differences in their
conceptual meaning.
Alienation refers to a form of powerless self-estrangement (Hancock, 1986). When
people are alienated they feel like they don’t belong to the social world. Alienation is
the separation from social institutions and feeling powerless and normless (Bell,
1985). There is no necessary theoretical or tangible connection between the alienation
one experiences and one’s levels of loneliness, and as such the concepts are quite
distinct. However, similarly to aloneness and isolation, the experience of unwelcome
alienation can lead to an associated increase in feelings of loneliness.
According to Gotesky (1965, p. 236) solitude is “that state or condition of living or
working alone … without the pain of loneliness or isolation being an intrinsic
component of that state or condition”. Solitude is often a refreshing experience, more
so than mere aloneness, and has a more optimistic, incubative effect. In contrast to
loneliness, solitude indicates the freedom to be alone. Many people appreciate
solitude and find delight and self-fulfilment in it, whereas appreciation and delight are
not often used to describe loneliness. The experience of solitude is perceptually based,
in that solitude for one person might mean loneliness for another, which captures the
common-sense notion that one person’s version of pleasure in another person’s
version of pain.
Lack of Social Support
In contrasting social support with loneliness Rook (1984a) purported that unlike a
lack of social support, loneliness is characterised by negative emotions such as
sadness, anxiety, boredom, self-deprecation, and feelings of marginality. Social
support comes from any social experiences, whether positive or negative, that support
physical and psychological wellbeing. As such, a lack of social support is part of the
developmental process of loneliness rather than being synonymous with it (Murphy &
Kupshik, 1992).
In a very general way, loneliness and social support are separate in their construct
definitions. Loneliness refers to the subjective experience of deficits in interpersonal
relationships, whereas social support refers to the availability of social resources
(Perlman & Peplau, 1984). However, social support is often inaccurately referred to as
the direct opposite of loneliness. From an experiential perspective social support is not
always received positively. Receiving help from others does not always produce
positive feelings of being socially supported. Although it is beyond the scope of this
research to discuss the psychology of help-giving behaviours, helping tends to be
perceived as supportive only if the helper conveys an attitude of caring toward the
recipient, rather than helping out of obligation or indifference (Caplan et al., 1975).
Similar to the phenomenology of loneliness, social support is only recognised as
contributing to psychological wellbeing when the recipient of the social support
perceives the help to be useful. However in many cases, social support whether
perceived positively or not, contributes to wellbeing even if it is grudgingly offered,
such as transportation to a job interview for example.
Researchers investigating social support dispute whether support should be viewed as
an objective or subjective construct. House (1981) for example, has identified four
major classes of social support: emotional support (esteem, affect, trust, concern,
listening), informational (advice, suggesting, directives, information), instrumental
(money, labour, time), and appraisal support (affirmation, feedback, social
comparison). Clearly, some of the constructs defined by House penetrate into various
aspects of loneliness. For instance, measures of social support ask questions relating
to how concerned a member in one’s social network is about one’s welfare. Self-
report loneliness measures tend to include similar lines of questioning (e.g. Russell,
Peplau & Ferguson, 1978). It would appear therefore that both constructs are tapping
into a common underlying phenomenon, such as the importance of the social
environment to one’s social and emotional wellbeing (Rook, 1984a). However, it is
generally agreed that social supports refer primarily to quantifiable and reliable offers
of social assistance and support, whereas loneliness is more experiential, referring to
the perception one has of their social deficiencies.
Loneliness, again while similar, can be differentiated from depression. According to
Weiss (1973) there is a need to rid oneself of the distress of loneliness by integrating
into new relationships, or regaining an abandoned relationship. With depression, there
is a drive to surrender to it. As such, the lonely are “driven to find others, and if they
find the right others, they change and are no longer lonely” (Weiss, 1973, p. 15). Even
though there are strong correlations between loneliness and depression, there is some
evidence to suggest that loneliness is more than simply negative emotional arousal.
Bragg (1979) for instance, compared university students who were lonely and
depressed, lonely but not depressed, or neither lonely nor depressed. The research
suggests that respondents who were lonely without being depressed tended to be
distressed specifically about the interpersonal and social aspects of their lives,
whereas those students who were both lonely and depressed tended to be distressed
over a wider range of personal issues. Conceptually therefore, loneliness is a more
specific experience of dissatisfaction than depression (Horowitz, French & Anderson,
Given the above discussion, there is little disagreement that loneliness is a subjective
state that can be distinguished from both objective and other related psychological
constructs (Andersson, 1986).
Theories and Perspectives on Loneliness
Most theorists agree that feeling lonely results from deficiencies in a person’s social
relationships, either qualitatively or quantitatively (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). As
reviewed previously, loneliness is considered a subjective, aversive and often painful
experience (Rook, 2000), yet the theoretical foundations in which loneliness is
researched are not as solid as one may suspect. Borrowing a phrase from Selye (1980)
who discussed stress, loneliness is a concept which has suffered from the mixed
blessing of being too well known and too little understood.
Early Approaches to the Study of Loneliness
Fromm-Reichmann (1959) described loneliness as one of the least satisfactorily
conceptualised psychological phenomena, noting that it was not even mentioned in
most psychiatric textbooks. The situation was scarcely better by 1986 when Medora
and Woodward protested that there were neither well-defined theoretical frameworks
explaining loneliness nor any consensus regarding its causes or consequences. Rather,
research has relied upon theoretically murky concepts that cannot be well measured
(Medora & Woodward, 1986). However, it is not through lack of trying. In fact,
many different theories of loneliness have been proposed since the 1950s.
Psychoanalytic and post-Freudian researchers believed that loneliness derives from
childhood narcissism and hostility (Zilboorg, 1938), unfulfilled infantile needs for
intimacy (Fromm-Reichmann, 1959), or lack of early attachment figures (Bowlby,
1969; Weiss, 1973). Humanist and existentialist theorists defined loneliness as a form
of anxiety which leads to self-rejection (Moustakas, 1961). Such theorists treated
loneliness paradoxically as both the pathological repercussion of believing that others
will not understand and accept the inner self (Rogers, 1970), and a normal experience
which deepens self-awareness (Mijuskovic, 1979). Cognitive theories on loneliness
began to emerge and crystallise in the early 1980s with the collaborative efforts of
researchers at UCLA.
Cognitive Processes Perspective
Cognitive theorists have tended to define loneliness in terms of one’s cognitive
expectations regarding relationships. Such theories argue that the primary
determinates of loneliness derive from a combination of negative, internal, stable
attributions about one’s deficiencies in relationships (Anderson and Arnoult, 1985;
Schultz & Moore, 1986), irrational beliefs about the control one has over one’s life
(Brings, 1986; Hoglund & Collison, 1989), or a discrepancy between desired and
achieved relationships (Archibald, Bartholomew & Marx, 1995).
What is key here is that loneliness is not a result of the absolute time spent with a
desired other, but whether that relationship fulfils the cognitive expectation of desired
relationship fulfilment. It is the perception of social inadequacies, rather than actual
inadequacies that increase proneness to loneliness. The perceived discrepancy,
although cued by cognitions, is associated with feelings of abandonment and a lack of
attachment, rather than merely dissatisfaction with not having someone to do an
activity with. Although lonely people tend to have fewer social relationships than non-
lonely people, a more relevant determinant of loneliness is dissatisfaction with the
current social network. As such, it is doubtful whether people would label themselves
lonely unless cognitive cues were also present. For instance, cognitive indicators
probably include the conscious desire for a type of personal relationship or the
wanting for more frequent social interaction. Therefore, loneliness can be heightened
or reduced by changes in a person’s subjective standards for social and intimate
relationships (Rook, 1988).
Other cognitive factors apart from perceived deficiency can also be responsible for the
development of loneliness. For instance, lack of control over the social environment
and an inhibition of self-determination are thought to be partly responsible for the
onset of loneliness (Fisher, 1994). Such findings have implications for the study of
loneliness in the work environment, where few employees have control over their
social environment or their self-determination. Lack of control over any given social
situation can result in the difference between feeling lonely and feeling content with
being alone. For example, many academics are motivated and productive in their
aloneness. However those who are alone and have limited control over this aloneness,
such as house bound wives, can become lonely because of their seclusion
(Seidenberg, 1980).
The appraisal process is also an important determinant of whether or not someone
feels lonely. If, for instance, one feels alone but does not perceive it to be threatening
to their psychological wellbeing then it is not obviously distressful and they are not
likely to feel lonely. The discrepancy between their desired and actual relationships is
only slight. In fact, according to cognitive theorists, feeling alone or isolated is only
distressing or painful when it is appraised by the individual to represent a negative
discrepancy within their social environment. As such, the appraisal process is a
cognitive underpinning for determining and therefore coping with the feeling of
loneliness (Lazarus, 1999). Such common sense theories may appear obvious to the
reader, however it is important to keep this perceptual distinction in mind when
discussing loneliness within the work environment, where the social environment is
not often objectively deficient.
The appraisal process can however be affected by the attribution process. The degree
of loneliness experienced will differ for those who believe social relations are
inherently uncontrollable and who attribute negative qualities to themselves
(Anderson & Arnoult, 1985). Presumably however, situational factors must get to a
point where they penetrate even perceptual or attribution biases. For instance, a
negative social environment must surely affect everyone’s perceptions over time.
Even an optimist would likely experience internal and stable attributions for their
loneliness upon repeatedly experiencing rejection from their social environment
(Weiss, 1987). This is evident in the quote presented in the beginning of chapter one,
when the employee indicates that by nature they are a gregarious person, but the
environment is such that they are starting to question “why doesn’t anyone want to
socialise with me?”
Social and Behavioural Perspectives
Behaviourists tend to attribute the onset of loneliness to deficiencies in an individual’s
social skills. Social skills and competence, according to this perspective are necessary
for developing and maintaining intimate and social relationships, and therefore
avoiding or alleviating feelings of loneliness (de Jong-Gierveld, 1987; Jones, Hobbs
and Hockenbury, 1982). Positive behavioural qualities of social interactions, such as
meaningful social dialogue, play an important role in staving off loneliness (Vaux,
1988). Lonely individuals tend to report or exhibit more negative interaction qualities
(e.g. distrust, inhibition) and tend to be unhappy with the degree of intimacy in their
social interactions (Segrin, 1998). Moreover, a lack of social skills can lead to
behaviour that tends to reduce rather than increase human contact. Therefore,
according to behaviourists a self-perpetuating cycle of defeat can be established,
which greatly increases susceptibility to loneliness. Conceptually and
methodologically, the cause and effect of loneliness can also be one and the same. For
example, low self-esteem can be both an initiating factor and it can also be a
consequence of loneliness (Killeen, 1998). Therefore disentangling the self-
perpetuating cycle can be difficult both from a clinical and research perspective.
Societal norms also indicate when we should begin to feel lonely, and also cause
lonely people to feel marginalised and ashamed of their social label. Loneliness tends
to contravene social norms, however this societal infringement is conditional upon the
match between the individual and expected social behaviour. For instance, an
adolescent spending a Friday evening without social company may be distressed and
lonely only for the reason that socialising is the expected norm amongst the particular
cohort. Here the expectation that weekends are for social activities enhances the
adolescent’s desired level of contact and thus serves to produce greater loneliness
(Perlman & Peplau, 1984). In this respect, the popular media are guilty of cultivating
feelings of social inadequacy and loneliness by artificially heightening the need for
approval and creating unrealistic expectations about relationships. Social norms
therefore, both indicate when we should begin to consider ourselves to be lonely, and
also cause lonely people to feel odd and ashamed (Murphy & Kupshik, 1992) Some
writers suggest that social expectations can be a beneficial force in one’s growth and
development, and motivate people to evaluate their relationships and conceptualise
their priorities to avoid feelings of loneliness (Rokach, 1985). Irrespective of the
reason for social norms, understanding such behavioural expectations helps explain
why the perceived deficiency in social relationships exists to begin with.
Incorporating several theoretical perspectives, Horowitz, French and Anderson (1982)
propose the development of loneliness falls into three ‘clusters’, which realistically
incorporate cognitions, emotions and behaviours. The first step in the process reflects
feelings and thoughts of being different, isolated or separate from others, and not
integrating with the social environment. Once the person thinks they are on the outer
and feels friendless, the second cluster involves a constellation of negative emotions
such as depression, sadness, and anger. The final cluster in the process reflects
behavioural outcomes such as avoiding social interaction and commitments, being
less assertive in their social interaction or working long hours to avoid social
engagement, which may perpetuate negativity and loneliness. This final stage
instigates a self-defeating cycle, in which the lonely individual behaves in such a way
to create further isolation and feelings of separateness leading to negative emotions
and the continual avoidance of social engagement.
Social and Emotional Loneliness
Weiss (1973) has classified loneliness into two theoretically distinct but experientially
similar constructs, namely emotional and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness tends
to be associated with feelings regarding relationships with individuals, such as close
attachment relationships and feelings of closeness with others. When an individual is
emotionally lonely, he or she tends to experience a general feeling of sadness and
emptiness, and longing for close relationships with others. Social loneliness on the
other hand tends to be related to feelings regarding relationships with groups of
individuals, such as the feeling of being part of a group of friends. People who suffer
from social loneliness lack a feeling of belonging within a societal group and question
their ability to relate to others, doubting whether they truly belong (Rokach, 1985;
Weiss, 1973). Emotional and social loneliness tend to be related to the source of the
interpersonal relationship, in that emotional loneliness is related to one-on-one
relationships, whereas social loneliness is related to desired relationships with groups
of individuals who share similar concerns. Ernst and Cacioppo (1998) have argued
that developing both emotional and social relationships is important for staving off
The distinction between emotional and social loneliness is not merely semantic, but
has relevance to understanding why people feel lonely. Russell, Cutrona, Rose and
Yurko (1984) examined the predictors, experience, and consequences of emotional
and social loneliness. In their study of college students, the researchers argued that
feelings of intimacy with another individual and feelings of taking care of another
negatively predicted emotional loneliness, whereas feeling that one’s attributes are
appreciated by others negatively predicted social loneliness. Their study provided
evidence for the notion that social and emotional loneliness are separable constructs.
Nonetheless, the study also suggested that individuals suffering from emotional
loneliness share many of the same experiences as those suffering from social
loneliness. However, results from Vaux (1988) contradict these findings, suggesting
that emotional and social loneliness show limited patterns of divergence. The
researcher predicted that social and emotional loneliness would show patterns of
differential association as theorised by Weiss (1973) and empirically examined by
Russell et al. (1984). However, the distinction was not upheld in their study of 140
college students. The researcher argued that both quantitative and qualitative aspects
of socialising and emotional support seem to play a role in loneliness, whether social
or emotional. However, further research by DiTommaso and Spinner (1997; 1992)
found evidence for the differentiation of separate constructs of loneliness, namely
romantic, family and social loneliness. Surprisingly, given the theoretical
underpinnings for emotional loneliness, social loneliness was found to be associated
with reports of greater depression and anxiety. This association is consistent with
Cutrona’s (1982) finding that social loneliness was related to greater homesickness
and depression in university students. According to the Curtrona’s findings, university
students value social integration above all the other social provisions, which may
explain why failing to adapt to the social environment was predictive of mental health
The distinction between emotional and social loneliness was also researched by
Stroebe, Stroebe, Abakoumkin, and Schut (1996). The researchers found that marital
status affected emotional loneliness but not social loneliness. In their study they found
that social support was a predictor of social loneliness but not emotional loneliness.
Van Baarsen, Snijders, Smit and van Duijn (2001) also found that marital status was
more strongly related to emotional loneliness than social loneliness, and that social
network support was related more strongly with social loneliness. Recent findings
from DiTommaso, Brannen and Best (2004) suggest measurement differences
between emotional and social loneliness, relating emotional loneliness with
attachment and social intimacy and social loneliness with measures of social
competence and self-esteem. Such research findings seek to substantiate Weiss’
original claim on the distinction between emotional and social loneliness.
Trait and State Loneliness
Lonely people differ with respect to the duration of their loneliness. Loneliness can be
short-lived, lasting only as long as the person needs to adapt into the social
environment. On the other hand, loneliness can resemble a personality trait, persisting
over time and across different social contexts.
For many people who experience short bouts of loneliness, it is predominately
experienced as a ‘state’, based on novel situational characteristics. In this way
loneliness is time-limited and experienced in a specific social situation or
environment. Thus, if the situation is one in which most people would feel lonely,
feeling that way probably reflects a state response to the social environment. For
instance, first year university students are often noted as a group of individuals who
experience state loneliness (Barker, 1998), often as a result of feeling homesick
(Stroebe, van Vliet, Hewstone, Willis, 2002).
Persistent loneliness has been referred to as chronic or ‘trait’ loneliness (Rubenstein &
Shaver, 1982) and affects the individual throughout time and situational contexts. A
person who feels loneliness in various situations consistently over time is one who
may be high in trait loneliness (Suedfeld, 1987). In essence, trait-lonely individuals
are apt to be lonely for long periods of time, and they are also likely to suffer from
loneliness in many different settings. As such, both cross-situational generality and
chronicity are critical features that distinguish trait from state loneliness (Shaver,
Furnam & Buhrmester, 1985).
The motivation for social contact is another critical feature to consider when
investigating the chronicity of loneliness, as social connection and acceptance tends to
be a central influence and motivator of human behaviour (Hill, 1987). With regards to
motivational forces, it would seem likely that short-term loneliness, or loneliness that
stems from changes in the social environment, drives the desire for social activity,
whereas chronic loneliness is likely to be perpetuated by social apathy (Gerson &
Perlman, 1979). In considering the impact of motivation on loneliness, short-term
loneliness can presumably develop into chronic loneliness when repeated efforts to
integrate into the social environment and establish social contact are unsuccessful.
Such rejection may in fact threaten self-worth, even if the lonely person attributes the
cause of loneliness to external circumstances. Longitudinal studies have demonstrated
that major life transitions can induce feelings of loneliness for most people, regardless
of individual differences along this dimension (e.g. Cutrona, 1982). It is therefore
likely that motivational, personality and behavioural correlates of loneliness are only
valid for those who suffer from chronic loneliness, and are unlikely to hold true if
generalised to situation-based loneliness.
The conceptual distinction between short-term bouts of loneliness and chronic or
persistent loneliness may seem arbitrary. However, in many ways it benefits
loneliness intervention strategies, allowing the management of the specific source of
loneliness. Clearly, the perception of the cause and the chronicity of loneliness will
determine the way in which a person experiences loneliness. This distinction in
knowing why some, but not all, people feel lonely in certain situations may provide
the foundation for distinguishing people with different levels of susceptibility to their
social environment, and therefore have implications for the appropriate level of
treatment. In any case, an adequate consideration of the person-environment
interaction is required.
Most research on loneliness is not based on any one particular theory, since there
seem to be useful elements in many of them. Even theorists who belong to one
particular ‘camp’ often admit that loneliness is more complex than one specific theory
allows. For example, cognitive theorists Derlega and Margulis (1982) argue that a
perceived and unchanging relationship deficiency is only one of several factors which
lead to the label of loneliness. Shaver, Furman and Buhrmester (1985) argue for an
interaction approach to loneliness, taking account of life changes, transitional periods,
personal dispositions and person-situation interactions. In this respect loneliness can
assume both state and trait qualities over the course of a life time.
Empirical Studies on the Correlates of Loneliness
When loneliness research began to emerge in the early 1980s, the large majority of
studies focussed on North American, white middle-class college students. Since this
time however, a steady flow of diverse research has emerged on populations other
than college students, such as children (e.g. Kirova-Petrova, 1997), adolescents
(e.g.Ciftci-Uruk & Demir, 2003), and older adults (e.g. Pinquart, 2003). However,
much of the research on loneliness looks at populations that are at risk of social
alienation, isolation, and separation. For instance, loneliness in childhood is often
studied in relation to physical disabilities, or loneliness in old age is studied with
participants who are living in impoverished or isolated conditions. Such factors would
invariably exacerbate social isolation and advance the feelings of loneliness. While
studying these populations is valuable, the research findings may not clearly or
accurately distinguish between lonely and non-lonely populations. For instance, much
of Rokach’s work on loneliness (Rokach, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1996) suggests that
adults experience loneliness as an exceedingly painful experience. However, the
researcher’s sample included participants from socially marginalised groups (e.g.
Parents without Partners, Alcoholics Anonymous, seniors clubs, and penal
institutions). Although the sample population was more diverse than student
participants, members of such groups would be expected to experience greater
loneliness given their situational constraints. It is therefore important to keep in mind
that the conclusions from such empirical research may not generalise readily to other
groups of the population, such as the adult working population.
Factors Relating to the Person
Researchers have linked loneliness to a consistent and wide variety of individual
characteristics. Without blaming lonely individuals for their plight or minimising the
structural and environmental factors that can aggravate loneliness, it is important to
recognise that certain dispositional characteristics do predispose some people to
experience severe loneliness, more so than others. As such, demographic, affective,
personality, and behavioural factors can play a determining role in the development of
Demographic Factors
Research by Page and Cole (1991) indicates that marital status, household income,
gender, and educational attainment are significantly associated with self-reported
loneliness. Participants were asked to indicate how often they felt lonely during the
past year on a singular scale ranging from ‘very often’ to ‘never’. The random
telephone study of 8634 North American adults suggested that marital status was the
strongest predictor of loneliness, with married participants reporting the least
loneliness, and maritally separated participants reporting the greatest loneliness.
According to the research findings, loneliness is more prevalent amongst lower
income groups. Presumably, lower income groups have less access to resources, such
as time, money and social opportunities, which would explain why loneliness is
higher among people with lower incomes and the unemployed (Rook, 2000).
Similar to previous research (e.g. Borys & Perlman, 1985), Page and Cole found that
women were more likely to admit feeling lonely than men. However, whether this
reported difference is caused by actual differences in the experience of loneliness or
by differences in the willingness of men and women to report degrees of loneliness is
questionable. Gender differences in the reporting of loneliness could reflect a sex bias
in self-disclosure, which is perhaps an underlying cause of the observed gender
differences in loneliness. In essence, loneliness relates to gender only when
individuals are asked to respond to measures that use items containing the words
“lonely” or “loneliness” as opposed to questionnaires that do not make specific
reference to the construct. When the measure refers to the construct explicitly, the
gender effect appears to be attributable to males being less willing to report
loneliness. However, Borys and Perlman (1985) have argued that in general there are
no true gender differences in loneliness. According to the researchers, it is likely that
women are more willing to admit their loneliness to themselves and others than men,
who fear the possible repercussions of their affective self-disclosure. In general,
research suggests women are more likely than men to self-disclose and are generally
more trusting when revealing personal information to other people (Foubert &
Sholley, 1997). Moreover, it is plausible that gender differences are influenced by
underlying extraneous variables such as self-esteem, or gendered social norms than
actual sex differences in the perception of loneliness. This could be because lonely
males tend to be more stigmatised than lonely females (Lau & Green, 1992).
Affective and Attachment Factors
In general, loneliness is characterised by negative emotions and tends to be correlated
with feelings of sadness, anxiety, boredom, self-deprecation, and marginality (Rook,
1984a). Loneliness has been linked with poor psychological health and research
seems to indicate that loneliness and wellbeing are strongly related in some manner.
However, the causal direction of the relationship is unclear (Murphy & Kupshik,
1992). With regards to affective responses, loneliness is associated with dispositional
characteristics such as pessimism (Davis, Hanson, Edson & Ziegler, 1992), depression
(Anderson & Arnoult, 1985), shyness (Jones, Carpenter & Quintana, 1985), low self-
esteem (Kamath & Kanekar, 1993; Russell, 1982; Russell, Peplau & Cutrona, 1980),
guilt (Baumeister, Reis & Delispaul, 1995), and is strongly negatively correlated with
happiness (Booth, Bartlett & Bohnsack, 1992) and life satisfaction (Riggio, Watring
& Throckmorton, 1993). It would seem that Duck, Pond and Leatham’s (1994)
summation that loneliness provides a negative lens through which the world is viewed
is particularly accurate. Lonely individuals appear to judge their relationships from a
negative perspective, which in turn enhances negative cognitive appraisals and
affective responses about future relationships.
For the large majority of people however, loneliness is not a permanently distressing
condition. Loneliness can be dissipated, as if by magic, through the emotional
connection with another individual or through the meeting of a romantic partner. In
fact, correlational studies suggest that finding social connection with just one
companion may be sufficient to buffer feelings of loneliness for those at risk of social
isolation (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998). For some individuals, even the prospect of a
potential intimate relationship is sufficient to dispel loneliness, albeit temporarily
(Weiss, 1973). Interestingly, this finding is not peculiar to adult relationships. Parker
and Asher (1993) found that children who were rejected by their peers were buffered
from feeling lonely if they maintained one close friendship. During various
developmental stages in life, finding the capacity to form one close friendship or
companion appears to reduce the likelihood of loneliness.
The importance of social attachment is not limited exclusively to interpersonal human
relationships. In fact, the mere presence of, or sense of relatedness with another
organism can contribute to the promotion of health and wellbeing (House, Landis &
Umberson, 1988). Research by Hart, Zasloff and Benfatto (1996) found that deaf
individuals who benefited from the assistance a hearing guide dog were less lonely
than those deaf individuals who were without a hearing guide dog. The researchers
noted that the presence of the guide dog not only provided companionship, but it also
improved communication with family, neighbours and the hearing community. It
seems that while humans need to attach to others, the other party does not necessarily
have to reciprocate the attachment for the individual to experience a promotion of
Personality Factors
Research has consistently identified introversion and neuroticism as the two main
personality factors related to self-reported loneliness (e.g. Hojat, 1982; Russell,
Peplau & Cutrona, 1980; Saklofske, Yackulic & Kelly, 1986; Stokes, 1985).
Introversion tends to be associated with people who are quiet, contemplative, and
prefer smaller gatherings. However, the expression of introversion can be
misconstrued by others as unfriendly, uninvolved and socially awkward. The
extraverted individual, on the other hand, tends to be gregarious and outgoing. They
enjoy social company, prefer risk-taking opportunities and require stimulation. From
this description, extraverts are likely to be more active and deliberate than introverts
in their seeking out of social contacts and social situations (Saklofske, Yackulic &
Kelly, 1986). Lower extraversion scores (that is, introversion) tend to be associated
with higher loneliness scores (Kamath & Kanekar, 1993; Saklofske & Yackulic,
1989). Conceptually, one would expect introverts to report low levels of loneliness
due to their desire for more privacy and social reservation. In other words, one would
expect the discrepancy between their desired and actual relationships to be fairly low.
However, introverts who report high loneliness scores may be dissatisfied with the
quality of their current relationships, and manifest behaviours which inhibit the
promotion of interpersonal closeness. Additionally, it would appear that extraverts
exhibit the very behaviours that increase the likelihood of social and interpersonal
contact which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of experiencing loneliness (Saklofske &
Yackulic, 1989). Demonstrating positive social and personal characteristics, which
helps to create interpersonal attraction and social desirability, is a significant step in
conquering loneliness (Rook, 1984a). After all, who wants to be with an individual
who is depressive, socially apprehensive and who appears to lack social skills or
emotional sensitivity?
Neuroticism, an additional personality trait often associated with loneliness, refers to
individuals who are overly anxious and ‘emotional’, and express their behaviour in a
disproportional way to the stimuli that provoke it. People who are high in neuroticism
tend to be score highly on self-report loneliness scales (Saklofske, Yackulic & Kelly,
1986). The emotional reactivity of people who are high in neuroticism may repel
others, further perpetuating their dissatisfying relationships. Stokes (1985) found that
people high in neuroticism seem to be lonely not because of their difficulty in forming
social relations, but rather as a manifestation of their negative affectivity. The
researchers concluded that people with high neuroticism seem to have both personal
and interpersonal difficulties, which increase the probability of loneliness and further
increase psychological impairment. Moreover, Saklofske, Yackulic and Kelly (1986)
argue that high neuroticism scores could be reflecting a basic level of anxiety
associated with the formation of interpersonal relationships, which can then lead to
loneliness. In concurrence with this hypothesis, neuroticism has also been associated
with reports of high perceived stress (Penley & Tomaka, 2002). Thus, the individual
who is high in neuroticism may have a reasonable amount of contact with others but
not enjoy satisfying relationships due to high levels of anxiety, emotional reactivity
and perceived stress associated with interpersonal relationships.
In terms of broader personality characteristics, lonely individuals in comparison to
non-lonely individuals are more likely to be shy and low in sociability (Schmidt &
Fox, 1995). However, they tend to be high in social dependency and social anxiety
(Segrin & Kinney, 1995) but low in social skills to develop interpersonal relationships
(Buhrmester, Furman, Wittenberg & Reis, 1998). Further research by DiTommaso,
Brannen-McNulty, Ross and Burgess (2003) lends support to the existing literature,
indicating that securely attached adults are socially skilled and socially competent,
which is related to lower perceived levels of loneliness.
Personality factors affect loneliness in several ways by perpetuating or reinforcing
loneliness in a circular process. For instance, characteristics such as shyness and low
self-esteem may reduce a person’s social desirability and interpersonal attractiveness,
which can contribute to unsatisfactory patterns of social interaction. Additionally,
certain personal characteristics may influence how an individual reacts to changes in
their social environment, and thus affects how they cope with loneliness. If, for
instance, people are relocated to another city where they have few or no friends or
family, they may experience a period of loneliness. However, if they are gregarious
by nature and seek social stimuli, it is more likely they will overcome their loneliness,
compared to those who are socially reserved and inhibited. Such characteristics may
therefore predispose people to feel lonely, and reduce their ability to alleviate
loneliness (Peplau & Perlman, 1982).
Behavioural and Social Competence Factors
Although loneliness is primarily a private psychological experience, it tends to
manifest itself in the behavioural realm. Behaviourally, loneliness is often associated
with self-focus, shyness, and low social risk-taking. As such, lonely people tend to be
less assertive than non-lonely people, which may hinder their social interactions
manifesting itself in greater loneliness (Jones, 1982).
Loneliness has also been associated with a range of social network factors including
infrequent contact with friends (Cutrona, 1982), having few friends and spending time
alone (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona, 1980), and low intimacy of relationships with best
friends (Williams & Solano, 1983). Moore and Schultz (1983) demonstrated a
relationship between loneliness and external locus of control, social anxiety, and self-
consciousness, while Jones, Freemon and Goswick (1981) showed that loneliness was
associated with low trust, a sense of powerlessness, and social isolation. Yet, several
studies contradict these findings, observing no association between loneliness and
social interaction (Jones, 1981), network size (Stokes, 1985), or reciprocation of
friendship (Williams and Solano, 1983).
Research by Spitzberg and Hurt (1987) has found a reciprocal relationship between
interpersonal skills and loneliness. In general, the study found that individuals who
were less interpersonally skilled were more prone to experience feelings of loneliness.
The research suggests individuals with ineffective interpersonal skills are more
susceptible to social exclusion which can fuel feelings of loneliness, in turn leading to
less competent social interaction (Spitzberg & Hurt, 1987; Stephan, Faeth, & Lamm,
1988). Despite loneliness being associated with interpersonal deficiencies however, it
tends to be positively correlated with social sensitivity, which is the ability to decode
verbal communication from others (Segrin, 1993). In explanation for this apparently
unusual research finding Segrin argued that because lonely individuals are aware of
the feeling of interpersonal discomfort and rejection, they are perhaps cued to and
able to pick up on rejection expressed by others.
Additional research has shown that social anxiety and a lack of social skills relates to
feelings of loneliness (Solano & Koester, 1989). Wittenberg & Reis (1986) in their
study of 69 first year college students found that lonely participants exhibited less
adequate relationship-forming skills, such as initiation and assertiveness. Lonely
participants were also less competent in skills important for developing and
maintaining deeper, more intimate relationships, such as providing advice and
interpersonal conflict resolution. According to the Wittenberg and Reis, the absence
of such skills, may be a major determinant of loneliness.
Lonely people seem to score highly on a cluster of personality traits, cognitive states
and behaviours, all of which imply anxiety, shyness, boredom, depression, and poor
interpersonal skills. In many ways, these personality and behavioural characteristics
tend to intensify the experience of loneliness through the individual internalising these
feelings as stable attributions for social failure (e.g. Jones et al., 1981). Given the
evidence regarding personal characteristics and the behaviour of chronically lonely
individuals, it could be argued that lonely people entertain cognitions and exhibit
behaviours that enhance their isolation or perceptions of loneliness. Unfortunately
however, it remains unclear what aspects of lonely individual’s cognitive, affective,
and interpersonal processes are antecedents and what aspects are consequences of
loneliness (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998).
Factors Relating to the Situation
Many private situations can induce feelings of loneliness, ranging from spending
evenings alone without intimacy or companionship, to queuing at the supermarket
realising that one’s trolley is filled with pre-packaged dinners for one. However, other
more socially intense situations can instigate feelings of loneliness. Rokach (1985, p.
233) portrays loneliness as being “in the midst of a rushing mass of people on the
subway at rush hour. Many people, who are strangers with unfamiliar faces and
unknown destinations, who go in the same direction, stand beside each other, and may
occasionally be crushed up against, and touch each other, and still remain complete
strangers who don’t know each other and don’t care to know”.
By definition, loneliness experienced because of social deficits implicates the social
environment. In other words, a deficiency in social relationships might reasonably
imply an environmental trigger for the experience of loneliness. However, despite the
intuitive notion that loneliness could be attributable to the social environment or
context, it is a much neglected area of research. Loneliness researchers often gloss
over situational or contextual cues, preferring to study personal factors in the
experience of loneliness. Situations vary in the opportunities they provide for social
contact and the initiation of new relationships. Some situational constraints are very
basic, such as time, distance or money, others are more complex requiring intense
psychological adaptation (Perlman & Peplau, 1984).
Peplau and Perlman (1982) isolate two distinct causes of loneliness in their
framework for understanding loneliness, namely precipitating events and predisposing
factors. Generally speaking, any event that disrupts the individual’s social network is
considered a potential precipitating factor for loneliness. Precipitating events include,
for example, changes to the person’s actual social relationships, such as the ending of
a close relationship through death, divorce, or separation from an intimate
relationship, imprisonment, leaving home, migration, hospitalisation, the ‘empty-nest’
syndrome, retirement and relocation. Loneliness can also be triggered by changes in
the person’s social needs or desires, which may precipitate loneliness if desired
changes are not accompanied by actual relationships. The precipitating event that
causes loneliness most frequently involves a disruption in close relationships with
other people. The most extreme form of relationship loss is bereavement (Rokach,
1989), and it would be expected that this leads to profound loneliness due to its
unpredictable nature.
Unfortunately, most speculations about how situational factors influence loneliness
have not been subjected to empirical investigation. The few studies that have touched
upon situational events as causing or perpetuating loneliness, relate to a diverse range
of factors such as the transition to university (Cutrona, 1982), prolonged internet use
for those who are already lonely (Amichai-Hamburger & Ben-Artzi, 2003),
geographic mobility (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982), and living in a nursing home
compared to living in a community (Pinquart & Sorensen, 2003). Such studies are
overshadowed however by the large majority of research focussing on the
dispositional characteristics of the person. Considering that the feeling of control over
one’s social environment is a crucial cognitive determinant of feeling lonely, it is
surprising less emphasis has been given to situational factors, which invariably
contribute to a lack of environmental control.
An Interaction Approach to the Study of Loneliness
It would seem a reasonable proposition that loneliness is solely caused neither by
social or environment constraints, nor merely the result of personality characteristics.
Rather, it is an interaction between the person and the environment. Although
mentioned in the literature, the structural conditions in which loneliness is formed are
seldom analysed. Furthermore, an understanding of how such interactions jointly
affect vulnerability to loneliness has, unfortunately been overlooked in much of the
research literature (Rook, 1988). As such, the current literature base is not balanced
between the individual characteristics that drive loneliness, and the picture of social
and environmental reality (Andersson, 1986). There are however a few morsels within
the literature representing the connection between the social environment and
personal characteristics.
Early findings on loneliness suggest the experience of feeling lonely has little to do
with the number of social relationships an individual may have, but rather the quality
and meaningfulness of those relationships (e.g. Gaev, 1976). However, early research
by Jones (1981), Stokes (1985) and subsequently by Damsteegt (1992) suggests that a
poor social network does impact significantly upon feelings of loneliness.
Damsteegt’s research indicates that lonely individuals have both a poorer social
network and a poorer mental set, in terms of feeling alienated, resentful and bitter. As
such, lonely individuals expect to be, and are actually more prone to rejection from
their peers.
In developing a mediating model of loneliness, Kraus and her colleagues (Kraus,
Davis, Bazzini & Church, & Kirchman 1993) conceptualised loneliness using Weiss’
(1974) concept of social provision, in that relationship evaluation is determined by
feelings of attachment, social integration, reassurance of worth, nurturance, reliable
alliance, and guidance. The model of loneliness jointly incorporates person factors,
ecological factors, and the individual’s social network. In an empirical test of the
model on 509 university students, the researchers concluded that ecological factors,
such as living arrangements and recent relocation, affects loneliness only indirectly
via the impact on one’s social network and relationship evaluation. It would therefore
seem evident, according to this research, that the experience of loneliness is largely
concerned with social provision and the cognitive appraisal of the individual’s social
environment. This fits with the notion that it is the qualitative rather than quantitative
aspects of social interactions that are important for understanding loneliness.
Furthermore, it is the interaction between the individuals’ cognitive style,
interpersonal traits and the social situation that produce the negative effect of
Given this proposition, greater consideration of situational factors is needed in order
to redress the overestimation of the importance of dispositional factors. As a uniquely
subjective experience, loneliness is formed on the basis on personality configuration,
cognitive appraisal, and on the interaction that person has with his or her environment.
Much of the empirical work reviewed in this section provides further evidence that
loneliness appears to be a multidimensional and multifaceted experience.
Coping with Loneliness
In many respects, and for many people, the most direct and satisfying long term
remedy for loneliness is engaging in a meaningful relationship or improving
relationships with compatible others. Rokach and Brock (1998) have looked at coping
strategies perceived as helpful by research participants identifying themselves as
lonely. The strategies were grouped into six factors: acceptance and reflection, self-
development and understanding, social support network, distancing and denial,
religion and faith, and increased activity. Earlier research by Shaver and Brennan
(1991) suggests that chronically lonely individuals tend to engage in passive,
ineffective and unhealthy coping strategies such as watching television or overeating,
which tend to be inadequate mechanisms for overcoming loneliness. Such strategies
do not focus on the deficient social environment or the cognitive cues that perpetuate
Those who cope well with loneliness tend to engage in active behaviours, such as
engaging in social groups or creative and self-fulfilling activities. Such behaviours
would actively direct one’s attention away from lonely thoughts and diminish the
perceived gap between the ideal and actual social environment (Rook, 1988). In
testing this hypothesis, Shaver et al. (1985) found that ‘state-lonely’ subjects preferred
active coping strategies, tended not to make self-derogatory attributions, and were
sufficiently socially skilled. In contrast, ‘trait-lonely’ individuals attributed their
loneliness to internal and stable causes, and failed to seek out adequate solutions to
cope with their loneliness. In other words, trait-lonely subjects were resigned to their
loneliness, whereas state-only subjects were more optimistic about their situation and
therefore coped more effectively with their feelings of loneliness.
According to Rook and Peplau (1982) the majority of people seem to overcome
loneliness by forming new relationships, utilising their existing social network more,
or by substituting human relationships with media personalities or pets. However,
such a conclusion raises one of the many complexities surrounding research on
loneliness, in that difficulties relating to others and difficulties in spending time alone
have both been cited as contributing to loneliness. One version of research suggests
lonely people have little tolerance for aloneness (e.g. Greene & Kaplan, 1978) and
feel desperate distress when alone. Clinicians have recommended teaching lonely
individuals to engage in solitary activities or to increase their skills in being alone to
overcome their distress (Rook, 1988). A second school of thought suggests that
solitude offers protection from interpersonal stress and may be particularly appealing
as a coping mechanism for lonely people. Solitude in this respect is a protective
device to avoid potential threats to self-esteem perpetuated through low social or
assertion skills (Rook, 1988). This style of coping is particularly apparent in trait-
lonely individuals (Shaver, Furman & Buhrmester, 1985), and is likely to change over
time as the individual strives for a balance between interpersonal meaningfulness and
privacy. As such, Rokach and Brock (1998) suggest that coping with loneliness
involves a variety of techniques that seem to correspond with the cognitive, emotional
and behavioural components of the experience.
It would appear that the most rewarding and permanent way to overcome loneliness is
to create a sense of desired belonging, either with another individual, or with a
community of individuals. Loneliness can act as a useful feedback mechanism
contributing to the individual’s interpersonal provisions, and potentially spur the
individual on to an improved sense of connection. Research suggests that the least
lonely people have strong friendships, are emotionally connected to others in their
social network, and experience a sense of intimacy and membership of a wider social
group (McWhirter, 1990).
In summary, whether we conceive of loneliness as a personality-like trait, an acquired
behavioural disposition, or a fluctuating experience, the need for attachment and
connection arises with such consistency and potency that we can truly regard it as a
fundamental human need (Flanders, 1982).
Loneliness in the Workplace
Shortly after I started doctoral study, an acquaintance informed me that work-related
loneliness “wouldn’t be worth studying”, as it simply “wasn’t a major problem in the
business world”. However, two years later I came across this headline whilst
attending a conference in London:
A more detailed article was subsequently found on the Leaders in London website
(retrieved from the World Wide Web on 28 June 2004 from The article elaborated
“British business leaders battle against office
politics and loneliness, according to results of a
survey announced today for the International Leadership
Summit Leaders in London. Asked to indicate the worst
elements of business leadership 43 per cent of
respondents answered politics, while 31 per cent
indicated that loneliness was the most unpleasant
aspect of the job. The survey, conducted in April 2004
for the inaugural Leaders in London event, quizzed
almost 1,000 chief executives, company directors and
senior managers from around Britain to elicit their
opinions on the subject of leadership … In other
results, just 8% of respondents said responsibility was
the worst part of their job and a tiny 6% said they
disliked being criticised as part of the role … ‘The
significance of the ongoing battle to control office
politics and the loneliness of leadership is a potent
recipe for ill-health and burnout. If leaders are to
remain effective in the long term they need to
recognise this fact and acquire skills to maintain
their wellbeing,’ said Gary Fitzgibbon, chartered
occupational psychologist and founder of Fitzgibbon
Associates, a firm of business psychologists.
‘Loneliness is an unavoidable by-product of effective
people management. A good leader must exhibit fairness,
objectivity and emotional detachment – this last
quality in particular prevents the development of
special relationships with colleagues and therefore
renders the leader isolated and alone in the work
environment. A key skill in the armoury of an effective
leader is the ability to structure people’s activities
towards the achievement of organisational goals. In
this enterprise office politics, that complex set of
work-place behaviours motivated by people’s desire to
achieve their personals goals and typically
inconsistent with organisational objectives, is the
major obstacle to be overcome. It is an obstacle that
will invariably compromise organisational success if
left unchecked, which explains why good leadership
always involves a struggle to control it,’ added
If we are to believe the anecdotal literature and media reports, loneliness bedevils
many successful executives and business leaders. Undoubtedly, loneliness is built into
certain professional occupations, with the enforced hierarchy being an occupational
hazard for many individuals. For instance, in the hierarchical structure of most large
organisations, Chief Executive Officers or senior managers do not often have peers
they work alongside. Indeed, there are few people at the top of the organisation
compared to the bottom.
The need for some occupational groups to maintain a professional distance from their
subordinates or clients can often lead to anxiety and loneliness. According to Yalom
(1998) many senior ranked executives are unable to express or disclose their
emotions, and invariably keep themselves sheltered from self-disclosure. However,
many face deep insecurities including fears of being wrongfully judged, or being
found a fraud, despite their impressive skills, qualifications and operational success.
Moreover, many find they must speak with a constant air of authority and a serene
sense of self-confidence despite their own anxieties and lack of confidence. This mask
can often manifest itself in the individuals’ personal life as well, with many successful
executives failing to benefit from intimacy or friendship anywhere in their lives.
Many commentators in the popular media have argued that the prevalence and
availability of close social relationships
and support in the workplace is diminishing
(e.g. Joyce, 2004). This line of reasoning argues that changes in the structure of jobs
and the instability of the commercial environment have in part, led to a demise in the
quality of social relationships. Organisational restructuring has made what used to be
a relatively secure and permanent occupational life much more unstable and insecure.
In some ways, it is more difficult to forge relationships in the workplace when
employment is not guaranteed week in and week out. Moreover, the perceived
importance of commercial institutions over social institutions (including friends and
family) means that people are looking more and more to their work environment for
friendship and kin relations, despite the potential inadequacies of the workplace
environment for developing social relationships.
In most organisations, work consists of more than simply technological and
intellectual processes. For many, the act of ‘working’ is considered a social institution
which requires the continual fostering of human cooperation (Berman, West, &
Richter, 2002). As such, work settings can provide an environment where an
individual’s social and emotional needs are fulfilled. For instance, a worker could ask
for the opinion of another worker, or request their help on a project, allowing both
individual’s to maintain their self-esteem and reassurance of worth. Further, a fellow
co-worker may extend another co-worker an invitation to lunch or acknowledge
another’s achievements, which again fulfils the individual’s needs for attachment,
approval, social integration and provides a sense of belonging whilst at work.
However, for many individuals the social reality of working for an organisation is not
so rosy. In many bureaucratic organisations the attention is often focussed on
productivity, competition, decisions, deadlines, reports, and so on and less focussed
on the human element of organisation and productivity (Riesman, 1961).
In contrast to research on loneliness in general, where the focus is often upon intimate relationships,
the emphasis when researching loneliness in the workplace is on the individuals with whom one has a
close but non-intimate relationship.
Humans, whether they are at home or at work are social animals, so much so that a
basic need to belong is a fundamental motivator in human existence (Flanders, 1982).
Contrary to lay opinion (such as the comments made to the author in the opening of
this chapter), the need to belong and attach to others does not cease to exist upon
entering the workplace. Rather, the need for affiliation and nurturing interpersonal
relationships appears to be essential for physical and psychological wellbeing across
the life span, including life at work (Cacioppo et al., 2000). Positive interpersonal
relationships, whether they are at work or not, are ‘good medicine’, and are
fundamental for a sense of community (Peplau, 1985). People can have a range of
relationships at work, ranging from a superficial greeting in the corridor, to the
development of an intimate tie leading to marriage. For some employees however,
they may feel they have a host of acquaintances at work but no one who really
understands them. In general, if one remains lonely for extended periods of time he or
she will be at greater risk of depression, suicide, and physical disease (Ernst &
Cacioppo, 1998). If loneliness is to be defined as one type of mismatch between the
individual’s social and emotional needs and the realities of his or her social
environment (Peplau & Perlman, 1982) then it would follow that the work
environment could be an environmental factor responsible for this disparity.
Loneliness at Work ~ A Neglected Area of Research
Loneliness is not a new phenomenon to study empirically, nor is loneliness at work a
new concept for journalists to report on. For instance, the words ‘loneliness’ and
‘isolation’ are often mentioned in the popular media when a leader or senior executive
is estranged because of his or her business or political dealings. However, the area of
workplace loneliness remains a nebulous and under-examined construct, both
empirically and theoretically.
Work-related loneliness, as with loneliness in general embraces a complex tangle of
unanswered questions. However, it is puzzling that a phenomenon already reported as
a current experience by so many organisational leaders, should receive so little
attention by researchers. Loneliness has been studied in the context of a variety of
interpersonal relations including relationships with strangers, classmates, friends, and
romantic partners (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998). Although the workplace is perceived as
a social institution harbouring opportunities for interpersonal relationships, it cannot
be assumed that friendships and meaningful relationships will flourish as a result. Just
like in a classroom setting, childhood loneliness can manifest itself in an apparently
social and congenial environment. Organisational research has started to place greater
emphasis on the importance of employee wellbeing (Pfeifer & Veiga, 1999).
However, the phenomenon of loneliness at work is curiously neglected as a specific
focus of concern.
The neglect of research is surprising given that the workplace hosts a myriad of
interpersonal relations, and in many cases employees spend more time with their
workmates than they do with their spouse or friends. However, despite the limited
availability of empirical research on loneliness at work, a paradox appears to have
emerged between the literature on loneliness and lay beliefs about work-based
loneliness. As discussed in Chapter 2, loneliness is often researched in association
with social incompetence or deficiencies in a person’s character. However, if
loneliness were peculiar to those who suffered from anxiety, poor self-image,
ineffective interpersonal behaviours, and low self-esteem, then it does not explain
why accomplished individuals in senior positions within organisations often report
feelings of loneliness. In order to achieve seniority in a commercial environment,
most employment decision makers would agree that a certain level of social
competence, self-assurance and interpersonal skills would be required. Therefore, it is
possible that a well-adjusted, sociable character who achieves seniority and success
might nevertheless feel lonely at work. It could also be that those individuals who feel
lonely in their position may demonstrate sufficient social skills for the role, but do not
enjoy an abundance of social competence to readily cope with loneliness. It appears
however that in some situations, environmental conditions could be a contributing
factor to the individual feeling unable to find a connection with their work colleagues.
However, the current loneliness literature seems to have overlooked the common
notion that highly successful, socially competent individuals can also experience
bouts of loneliness.
General Literature on Loneliness in Relation to the Workplace
In the 1970s an American sociological theorist, Philip Slater, recognised that cultural
values and social institutions could exacerbate loneliness. Slater (1976) argued that
social institutions such as public schools and private corporations emphasise
individualism and personal success through competition and independence, which he
argued tends to go against the basic human needs for belonging, community and
engagement with others. Slater (1976, p. 34) argues:
“Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of
human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in
America is to ‘free’ us from the necessity of relating to,
submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people.
Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the
more we have felt disconnected, bored, and lonely.”
Rather than classifying loneliness as abnormal, Salter described it as normative and a
common by-product of social forces. In essence, he strongly believed that the
competitive life is disconnected and lonely, and its satisfactions short-lived. Similarly,
Seidenberg (1980, p. 186) argued that “corporate men are lonely both in their travels
and in their offices … they secretly yearn for more trust and genuine friendship,
which are absent both from competitors on the outside and inside from the
organisation”. In 1982 Peplau and Perlman also suggested that social institutions
which emphasise “rugged individualism and success through competition” might
foster loneliness (p.9).
Literature on occupational stress also touches on isolation and loneliness as both a
cause and consequence of stress at work. For instance, Cooper (1981) described the
problem of isolation as being a factor that adds to the strain of the executive. Not
surprisingly, being higher in the organisation results in fewer opportunities for
feedback and social dialogue from others, simply because the top is not a very
crowded place. As such, there are fewer people around at that level to provide support
and feedback. Cooper suggests that “at highly competitive managerial levels … it is
likely that problem-solving will be inhibited for fear of appearing weak. Much of the
American literature (particularly) mentions the isolated life of the top executive as an
added source of strain” (Cooper, 1981, p. 281).
There is also some evidence in the literature to suggest that personal communication
is not reciprocal in situations where the parties have unequal status. As such, there is
more willingness to self-disclose up the status hierarchy (i.e. from subordinate to
boss) than down it (Earle, Giuliano, & Archer, 1983). Recent research from Adamson
and Axmith (2003) suggests that for two-thirds of Chief Executive Officers (CEO) the
most difficult issue they face is feeling disconnected from others at work. This feeling
of disconnection is thought attributable to their ongoing responsibility and
preoccupation with business matters, being isolated from family and friends, and
experiencing a sense of alienation from aspects of their personality. It would seem
from this research (and from the Leaders in London research outlined in the beginning
of this chapter) that wearing a mask while in the CEO position is necessary to respond
to expectations of organisational stakeholders. Such masking can create feelings of
existential distress, heightened anxiety, impatience, emotional withdrawal and abusive
outburst (Adamson & Axmith, 2003). Nevertheless, there is often little sympathy for
the likes of CEOs who can earn up to 500 times what some of their employees earn
(Kirk, 2003)!
Contrary to the conceptual links between individualism, seniority and loneliness,
empirical research by Page and Cole (1991) on the demographic predictors of
loneliness in an adult population, report that managers and those with professional
occupations tend to experience less loneliness than other occupational groups, such as
technicians, sales and clerical staff. Interestingly, the research indicates that service
workers experienced the most loneliness amongst those surveyed. This finding is
worthy of note as service workers may in fact encounter the most human contact
during their working day out of all the jobs surveyed, yet the human contact may be
more emotionally giving than receiving in the nature of the role. However, this
finding corresponds with Page and Cole’s contention that economic status influences
loneliness, in that reduced income and poorer education status are influential factors
in reported loneliness. Not surprisingly therefore given their research results, those in
professional or managerial occupations who typically have a higher income and more
advanced education are, according to Page and Cole, less likely to be lonely due to
their economic and social wellbeing. This conclusion runs counter to previous claims
that the role of senior manager tends to be isolating and potentially lonely. However,
individual differences may account for such discrepancies in that, for some managers
or professionals, status and income may be sufficient to remedy the isolating factors
of the job, while for others the isolation may be so burdensome that high income does
not compensate for the pain associated with loneliness.
Empirical Studies on Workplace Loneliness
A recent literature search across several social science databases uncovered almost
4000 articles on various aspects of loneliness (PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, Proquest
Social Sciences). From within this search, it was apparent that few studies have
investigated the interaction between the situational and personal factors that promote
loneliness, and even fewer studies have focussed on loneliness in the workplace. In
fact, only four published empirical studies have specifically examined the nature of
loneliness in the workplace, and it is to this research that the chapter now turns.
Research carried out by Gumpert and Boyd (1984) suggests that small business
owners frequently feel lonely, a problem which the authors attribute to excessive
workloads and stress. In their survey of 249 small business owners, respondents were
asked a series of questions regarding their relationships at work and involvement with
others outside of their business, their health status, and several open-ended questions
regarding the psychological aspects of business ownership. The authors also
conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 business owners to discuss the causes
and possible remedies for their isolation. In general, the respondents who experienced
the most loneliness were those who had transitioned from a corporate environment to
a small business environment. On the whole, they experienced loneliness due to a
general lack of colleagues with whom to share experiences, explore ideas and
commiserate. Many respondents felt they were unable to converse with their
competitors, as this could pose problems for business development and maintaining a
competitive advantage. In other words, an individual cannot easily develop
meaningful relationships with those in competition. Among the respondents, 68
percent reported that they had no confidant with whom they could share their
concerns regarding their business.
Gumpert and Boyd’s (1984) research does however suffer from several
methodological issues. Firstly, loneliness was not quantifiably assessed as such.
Rather, it was gauged using open-ended, unstructured questions, which ranged from
defining loneliness as isolation or aloneness, through to the term meaning loneliness
‘at the top’. Further, although open-ended questions provide fruitful information, the
data received do not provide standardised comparison amongst the respondents,
inhibiting conclusions and generalisations drawn from the study. Secondly, the
authors did not study a comparison group of employees who were not self-employed.
It is therefore not possible to determine if small business owners are especially
vulnerable to loneliness or whether their levels of loneliness are in fact different to
other employees. Subsequent research by Bell, Roloff, Van Camp and Karol (1990)
found no support for the author’s claim that individuals who are self-employed are
more likely to be lonely than those employed by others.
Bell, Roloff, Van Camp and Karol’s (1990) research sought to address the hypothesis
that people who are successful in their jobs are more likely to consider themselves
lonely than people who are less successful. This hypothesis queries the conceptual
issues raised in the previous section regarding individualism, competitiveness, and the
impact organisations can have on loneliness. The research, conducted by academics in
the field of communication, questioned whether senior-ranked employees had fewer
friends and spent less time with their family and were consequently lonely, or whether
greater economic remuneration for those in higher organisational levels (and the
corresponding social opportunities such remuneration can purchase) offset job
demands and feelings of loneliness. The respondents for the study were recruited from
the Greater Chicago area and responses were gauged from a random sample of 416
participants via a telephone survey. Data were collected on demographic variables
(age, education, income, marital status, and race) and loneliness was assessed using
the four-item survey version of the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau &
Cutrona, 1980). Data were also collected on occupational prestige and organisational
level by assessing the respondent’s job title, and asking the respondents to place
themselves on a hypothetical organisational ladder. Organisational commitment, work
group cohesion, job satisfaction, and friendship network size were also assessed using
short measures (1-4 items). Interestingly, the correlation between organisational level
and loneliness was small but negative (-.12), indicating that loneliness is associated
with those at the bottom of the hierarchy. This correlation remained even after
commitment, hours worked per week, job satisfaction, age, education, and family
income were controlled for. A one-way analysis of variance revealed that people near
the top of their organisations reported being less lonely than those at or near the
bottom, despite those higher up in the organisation working longer hours and sharing
fewer hours with family. In explanation, the researchers argue that people at higher
levels of their organisations may differ on individual or interpersonal dimensions,
such as social skills, marital satisfaction and interpersonal orientation. In essence, it
may be that the social skills that lead these individuals to advance the organisation’s
ladder, may also be responsible for their lower levels of loneliness. Members towards
the top of the organisation also have greater access to resources which makes them
attractive social associates. Gender and marital status did not affect the respondents
reports of loneliness. In a subsequent regression analysis, work-group cohesion was
the best predictor of loneliness. Interestingly, there was a strong positive relationship
between hours worked and loneliness but only for those who thought their work-
group was not close. The authors reasonably argue that if the work environment is
oppressive working long hours will more likely contribute to loneliness. Not
surprisingly, the number of hours worked is irrelevant to loneliness if the work
environment is cohesive and supportive and the employee has high job satisfaction.
Bell, Roloff, Van Camp and Karol’s (1990) study does however suffer from
methodological weaknesses. Moreover, several features of the study make it difficult
to draw generalisable conclusions. All of the measures were self-report, which could
have resulted in bias for items that required an objective assessment (i.e.
organisational level). Moreover, the assessment of loneliness was based on a short
global measure (4 items), therefore the degree to which work-related loneliness was
specifically assessed is relatively ambiguous. Moreover, relying upon a four-item
measure to assess loneliness restricts variance in the loneliness variable, with the
effect of attenuating its correlation with other organisational measures. The authors
have however recognised the limitations in their measures and methodology. For
instance, they concede that it is unlikely that the top and the bottom of the
organisation mean the same thing for different employees from different
organisations. In other words, it is hardly likely that being at the top of the hierarchy
in a small retail shop is comparable to being at the top of a large corporation.
In remedying these methodological limitations, Reinking and Bell (1991) conducted a
field study to examine how one’s career situation interacts with his or her
communication competence to influence the person’s level of loneliness. The
researchers proposed the hypothesis that individuals who occupy low positions in
organisational hierarchies would be more prone to loneliness. They also sought to
address whether the negative correlation between organisational level and loneliness
was a result of communication competence at more senior levels. The study recruited
192 participants from one civil service organisation. Loneliness was assessed using
the 20-item UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona, 1980),
organisational level was determined by assigning the respondent’s job title to one of
five predetermined categories (clerical, clerical-secretary, clerical-supervisory,
administrative, administrative-supervisory, director), communication competence was
measured using an interpersonal competence questionnaire. Similar to previous
findings (Bell et al., 1990; Page & Cole, 1991), Reinking and Bell (1991) found that
loneliness was associated with those respondents in lower level positions, even when
communication competence was controlled for. In explanation for this finding, the
authors argue that success in the workplace may be more important for many people
than closeness to others. Moreover, an individual may not see a deficit in personal
relationships when achievement at work fulfils primary goals.
Reinking and Bell’s (1991) follow-up study exhibits some methodological limitations,
largely in relation to the generalisability of the results. The research was conducted
with respondents from a civil service organisation. It is therefore questionable
whether those respondents at the top carried the same burdens, insecurities and
sacrifices that accompany senior level positions in private industry. As the authors of
the study indicated, the results may not generalise beyond the specific parameters of
the organisation. Furthermore, the loneliness measure used, although more
comprehensive than their previous 4-item measure, also limits generalisability, in that
the UCLA measure of loneliness does not specifically measure loneliness at work. It
is therefore difficult to conclude if the individual is in fact lonely at work, or whether
the loneliness stems from other facets of their life.
The authors also concede that it may not simply be the individual’s position within the
organisation that influences loneliness, and their interpretation of ‘it’s lonely at the
top’ may have been insufficient to capture the essence of what it means to be at the
‘top’. For instance, the authors comment that loneliness at the top could be related to
the isolation of decision making at senior ranked positions, and the heavy weight of
responsibility felt by those at higher levels of an organisation. This factor is not
always implicit in assessing the individual’s hierarchical position within the
organisation. In essence, merely assessing job title and position within the hierarchy
fails to capture the essence of what inherently makes the role potentially lonely.
A further study on loneliness at work, carried out by Chadsey-Rusch, DeStefano,
O’Reilly, Gonzalez and Collet-Klingenberg (1992), empirically assessed loneliness
amongst 51 workers with mental retardation employed by integrated and sheltered
workshops. The researchers developed a loneliness questionnaire based on the work
of Asher, Hymel and Renshaw (1984) designed to measure children’s feelings of
loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Asher’s scale was adapted to assess the
loneliness of retarded adults in work settings by changing the words kid to people and
school to work. Trained interviewers administered the questionnaire. The resulting
scale was referred to as the Worker Loneliness Scale and included 23 items with three
factors: aloneness (e.g. “Are you lonely at work?”), social dissatisfaction (e.g. “Do
you have lots of friends at work?”), and leisure pursuits (filler items). Participants
could respond to the questions on a three-point scale (i.e. yes, sometimes, no). The
scale was found to be internally reliable, with split half correlation of 0.83 for those
respondents with mild retardation and 0.81 for those respondents with moderate
retardation. The test-retest reliability of the scale over a 2-3 week interval was 0.76
for those respondents with mild retardation and 0.89 for those respondents with
moderate retardation. The overall results from the study suggest that loneliness and
social dissatisfaction were not pervasive feelings for individuals with mild or
moderate mental retardation. It could well be that the subtleties of social interaction
and political agendas would be less intense in a workplace shelter, thus creating a less
constrained social environment. However, their conclusions were limited by the fact
that no comparative data were available on the loneliness of workers without mental
retardation. It was apparent from their research however, that some individuals were
experiencing significant loneliness at work and the researchers called for further
research in this area.
A qualitative study carried out by Steinburg, Sullivan, and Montoya (1999) looked at
the experience of loneliness and social isolation in the workplace for deaf adults. The
authors hypothesised that because of social integration difficulties, deaf workers may
experience poor vocational and psychological outcomes in the workplace. Fifteen deaf
volunteers were interviewed for the study, which examined the participants’
vocational experiences, social support, general perceptions of loneliness, and
experiences with accommodations in their work setting. In addition to the interview,
participants were administered the Revised UCLA Loneliness Eight-Item Scale (Hays
& DiMatteo, 1987). The interviews were conducted in American Sign Language.
Their study, although not an extensive examination of the relationship between
loneliness and work functioning, found that for some participants, communication
barriers in the workplace did create social difficulties leading to loneliness, which
negatively affected their work performance.
Other studies touching on loneliness in the workplace include research by Melamed,
Szor and Bernstein (2001) who found a correlation between job satisfaction and a lack
of loneliness amongst therapists working in an outpatient clinic. Research by
Ukwuoma (1999) with Nigerian Catholic priests found that loneliness was a
significant stressor in their daily working lives.
Research on Professional Isolation and School Principals
School principals are an occupational group who often express a sense of loneliness,
isolation, and alienation. Such working conditions are thought to contribute to a
diminished sense of meaningfulness, power, and job satisfaction (Dussault &
Thibodeau, 1997). Researchers working in the area of principal wellbeing argue that
the conditions of the school working environment reduce the possibility for
interaction with colleagues and peer principals, and diminish the development of their
informal networks (Dussault & Barnett, 1996). Barnett (1990) found that professional
isolation could have a negative effect on principals who have to cope with it, and
concluded professional isolation could diminish the professional development of
school administrators. Research by Allison (1997) indicates that in a sample of 643
elementary and secondary school principals, approximately half of the respondents
reported feeling alone in their position and feeling dissatisfied with their jobs as a
result of the ‘loneliness of command’. In a study linking professional isolation (as
measured with the global UCLA Loneliness Scale) with occupational stress, Dussault
et al. (1999) found a strong and positive correlation between the two variables.
Previous research by the present author (Cubitt
& Burt, 2002) on a sample of 293
primary school principals suggests that loneliness, as measured by the UCLA
Loneliness Scale, is a significant predictor of educator burnout, namely emotional
exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment.
Qualitative doctoral research by Howard (2002) on the isolation of school principals
in Georgia, America found that the principalship was indeed isolating for the ten
respondents interviewed. One of the respondents indicated “It’s very lonely … there’s
nobody there with you to make the decision. There’s nobody there to help you. You
make the decision. You’re held accountable … you are ostracised because of your
position” (p.93). The findings from the research also suggest that the increased
workload for principals impacted upon their feelings of loneliness. The principals
described a paring down of their personal friends and reported spending less time in
self-selected social activities with friends. Several of the principals described isolation
from their peers and colleagues due to their ascension to the principalship or the lack
of time to maintain their relationships. Some of the respondents characterised their
relationships with their colleagues as ‘territorial safeguarding’ due to the increased
accountability and competition in the education sector. The principals reported that
such obstacles impeded the maintenance or even the establishment of satisfying
interpersonal relationships with their colleagues. In a frank statement regarding
loneliness in senior roles, a School Superintendent asserted that leaders have to accept
isolation as a natural part of their jobs, so they should “adjust to it, or get out of the
business” (Jones, 1994, p. 27). However, accepting isolation as part of the course does
not mean it is a healthy or enjoyable experience.
In summary, the research findings on loneliness in the workplace have thus far been
inconsistent and have limited generalisability to the wider working population. While
they offer noteworthy developments in how loneliness can manifest itself in the
workplace, the empirical studies have generally been unfocussed in their attention.
Denotes maiden name
However, what we can reap from previous research is the importance of
conceptualising and operationalising the term ‘workplace loneliness’, the need to
measure loneliness accurately and consistently across a range of occupational groups
(which will allow for future comparative study), and the need to assess the
characteristics of the respondent’s job and the features of their employing
organisation. However, in order to achieve these goals, it is important to understand
related fields of study overlapping with the loneliness literature.
Related Areas of Research and Literature
Interpersonal Relationships at Work
One would intuitively think that a focus on interpersonal relationships within the work
environment was of particular concern in answering very important and basic
questions about how work affects human health and wellbeing. After all, most
organisations depend on individuals to interact and relate, to negotiate their problems
if work is to succeed, and in some service industries to form ‘friendly relations’ to
accomplish the work of the organisation (Wright, 1985). Interpersonal relationships
formed in a work context therefore have a significant effect on people just by virtue of
the time they spend together (Hochschild, 1997). However, while there have been
notable and critical developments in understanding how social relationships affect
basic human health in psychology (e.g. Ryff & Singer, 1998) and behavioural
medicine (e.g. Ornish, 1998), organisational researchers have barely touched the
subject. The neglect is even more surprising given that a link between improved
interpersonal relationships and various aspects of job performance was evidenced
nearly 30 years ago (e.g. performance quality; Hackman & Morris, 1975). However,
in recent years there has been a far greater emphasis on workplace stress and
wellbeing in association with the conditions of work, and a fairly limited emphasis on
the development of interpersonal relationships and how they affect human and
organisational wellbeing.
As a general rule, people tend to form interpersonal relationships most easily in social
environments that enable a sharing of common values and similar backgrounds (Fine,
1986). Consequently, the workplace environment or organisational climate has the
potential to influence the quality of interpersonal relationships experienced at work.
For instance, some work environments actively encourage cooperation, friendliness
and social harmony among employees, whereas other workplaces may encourage
individualism, distrust and competitiveness. It would therefore seem likely that the
espousal of such values would impact upon the types of relationships experienced
within the organisation.
In many respects, the social networks formed in a workplace may also reflect the
formal organisational arrangements. Research by Krackhardt and Stern (1988)
indicates that the organisational structure contributes to the development of informal
relationships in the workplace. As such, employees in work environments in which
the formal organisational design fosters frequent interactions are more likely to have
an opportunity for friendship with other employees. For instance, Fine (1986)
considered the relationship between organisational culture and organisational
friendliness and identified several factors which enhance interpersonal relationships
among co-workers. These factors include humour, ceremonies, shared activities
outside of work, and shared tasks.
Although not a work environment study, Aronson and Patnoe (1997) have
demonstrated that school-aged children contribute greater trust and friendliness when
classroom lessons are cooperative in nature. The authors also noted that positive
social advances were realised without compromise to academic achievement. Despite
this research being conducted on elementary school children, it suggests that settings
which encourage people to work together on problem-solving tasks and shared goals
tends to cultivate friendliness and reduce social isolation, without impeding
performance objectives.
Social Support at Work
There is a vast body of research investigating social support in relation to its effects
on stress and health at work. As such, support from friends, family, and co-workers is
generally thought to provide a powerful, naturally occurring force that inoculates one
against the deleterious effects of stress (Dignam & West, 1988). However, most of the
results from social support studies are ambiguous and inconsistent, making it difficult
to confidently claim causal interpretations of the links between social support and
stress. The majority of research on social support and occupational stress is outside
the scope of the present research, however there are several themes and research
articles worthy of note.
In the social support literature there are two predominant models of the role social
support plays in the development of stress; namely, the ‘direct’ effect hypothesis and
the ‘moderator’ or ‘buffering’ hypothesis. The direct effect hypothesis argues that
social support directly influences psychological and physical health irrespective of the
intensity of the stressors experienced. In other words, social support and stressors act
independently of one another on strains (Viswesvaran, Sanchez & Fisher, 1998). The
moderator hypothesis maintains that social support buffers individuals against the
deleterious consequences of stress. Specifically, the relationship between stressor and
strain is thought to be stronger for those individuals with low levels of support. A
third, and less well-researched model, known as the ‘indirect’ or ‘insulating’
hypothesis states that social support has an indirect effect on health by directly
reducing perceived stress (Dignam & West, 1988). Overall however, the evidence for
the competing models has been tenuous, inconsistent and unclear (Beehr, Farmer,
Glazer, Gudanowski & Nair, 2003).
Dignam, Barrera and West (1986) used path analysis to test the indirect, direct and
buffering models of social support with correctional officers. The researchers found
insufficient evidence for the direct and buffering models of social support. However,
the data were consistent with the indirect hypothesis, in that social support was
negatively related to perceived role ambiguity, which, in turn, was negatively related
to the experience of burnout. However, further research from Digman and West
(1988) found evidence for the direct hypothesis. Cross-sectional data, again on a
sample of correctional officers, suggested a direct relationship between social support
from co-workers and supervisors and the reduction or prevention of burnout.
Research by Chay (1993) in a study of 117 small business owners and employees
suggest that social support enhances wellbeing by moderating the effects of work
stressors. As such, this research supports the buffering hypothesis indicating that
social support considerably improves the effect of work stress on general health
scores. However, in yet another contradictory piece of evidence, Beehr, Farmer,
Glazer, Gudanowski and Nair (2003) studied 117 hospital, manufacturing and
pharmaceutical employees to determine whether social support has a direct or
moderating role in the relationship between occupational stressors and individual
strain. However, their study found few significant interactions or buffering effects in
the stressor-strain relationship. According to the authors of the study, one reason for
the weak relationships could be that there are individual difference moderators of the
relationship between social support and strain. In other words, the relationship
between social support and occupational stress may reflect the value people place on
social support at work, in that the relationship would be stronger for some employees
and weaker for others depending on the importance they place on support.
In some ways, the perceived importance of social support reflects an argument
introduced in Chapter Two, indicating that social support is only recognised as helpful
and reacted to positively, if the recipient perceives the support to be genuine and
valuable to their needs. Such a proposition has ramifications for the study of
loneliness at work, in that feeling lonely is based on the perceptions of inadequate
relationships in comparison to the value placed on interpersonal relations. Therefore if
an individual doesn’t place much worth on developing high quality relationships, in
the same way they may not place any great importance on social support when they
are stressed, they are unlikely to perceive themselves as being lonely.
A meta-analysis conducted by Viswesvaran, Sanchez and Fisher (1998) suggested that
social support has a threefold effect on the occupational stressor-strain relationship.
Firstly, social support reduced the strains experienced, secondly, social support
mitigated perceived stressors, and thirdly social support moderated the stressor-strain
relationship. Additionally, the researchers indicated there was insufficient support for
the argument that social support is mobilised when stressors or strains are
encountered. However, due to the cross-sectional nature of social support research, it
is not possible to disentangle the effects of social support and strain. That is, whether
social support acts to reduce strain or whether a strained individual fails to maintain
his or her support network for instance.
Overall, in spite of the intuitive appeal and promise of social support as a remedy for
occupational stress, the way in which social support offsets (or fails to offset) stress
remains largely a mystery (O’Driscoll & Dewe, 2001). As such, enthusiasm for social
support research has waned in recent years because of these inconsistent and ‘dead-
end’ results.
In other social support research unrelated to occupational stress, an interesting study
by McCann, Russo and Benjamin (1997) using a sample of 204 attorneys, suggests
that high workplace hostility is related to lower perceived collegiality at work.
Moreover, low perceived availability of social support from co-workers was related to
greater job dissatisfaction. Research by Lim (1997), on a sample of 306 MBA alumni
suggests that supervisor and collegial support can contribute significantly in buffering
individuals against job dissatisfaction when job security is in jeopardy. In a study of
102 Australian managers, Lindorff (2001) addressed the issue of social support and
workplace stressors, hypothesising that the majority of workplace stressors identified
by managers would include concerns about relationships. Lindorff supported this
tenet, indicating that 75 percent of the stressors nominated by managers included a
relationship appraisal component. For example, the majority of issues related to lack
of support, assistance or understanding from superiors, performance confrontations
with subordinates, failure to communicate, and poor leadership within the
organisation. The author implies that managers who receive limited support when
experiencing work-related stress may feel “lonely at the top” (p.281).
Friendship at Work
Workplace friendships are defined as relationships that involve mutual commitment,
trust, reciprocal liking and shared values of interests between people at work, which
go beyond mere acquaintanceship but that exclude romantic liaisons (Berman, West,
& Richter, 2002). Workplace friendship is said to reduce workplace stress (by
increasing support and information that helps people do their jobs), increase
communication (by fostering formal and informal, horizontal and vertical interactions
with open styles of communication), help employees and managers accomplish their
tasks, and assist in the process of accepting organisational change. Workplace
friendships can also make work more enjoyable and enhance individual creativity
(Yager, 1997). From the organisation’s perspective, workplace friendships can lead to
greater commitment to the organisation (Rawlins, 1992) and can increase morale and
reduce turnover (Kram & Isabella, 1985). On the other hand, employees who are
suffering from reduced wellbeing at work can negatively affect the financial
performance of the organisation (Sparks, Faragher & Cooper, 2001). For instance,
people low in wellbeing are more likely to exhibit health problems, thus needing more
time off from work for illness (Cotton & Hart, 2003).
In a sample of 174 employees from a small electric utility company, Riordan and
Griffeth (1995) investigated the relationship between perceived friendship
opportunities in the workplace and work-related outcomes. Friendship opportunities
within the work environment were hypothesised to directly affect job satisfaction and
job involvement. Friendship opportunities were also hypothesised to indirectly affect
organisational commitment and employee withdrawal through the affect on job
satisfaction and job involvement. Structural equation modelling techniques were used
to examine the relationships among the constructs, with all aspects of the model being
supported in the study. The authors concluded that clear relationships exist between
the interpersonal aspects of work, in terms of friendship opportunities, and work-
related outcomes, and called for further research on the subject. Due to the cross-
sectional nature of the study however, it cannot be determined whether friendship
opportunities actually caused the outcome variables, or whether the outcome
variables, such as job satisfaction for instance, created the opportunity for friendship
to develop. Moreover, the study explored the opportunity for friendship rather than
actual friendships. It may well be that mere opportunity for friendship does not
inherently lead to the development of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
Friendships in the workplace are perhaps slightly different to friendships which
develop in other settings. For instance, friendships at work can be tested or
constrained by events outside the realm in which friendship might occur (Winstead,
Derlega, Montgomery & Pilkington, 1995). For example, a work based friendship
between two co-workers at similar levels within the organisation may be strained by
one receiving a promotion to management level, while the same recognition may not
be granted to the other. In general, research indicates that friendships are easier to
develop when based on status equivalence. A superior-subordinate friendship, for
example, will perhaps be more difficult to maintain as the patterns of association may
reflect the tension and strain being experienced in the friendship. Peer to peer, or
status equivalent relationships tend to foster a more balanced transaction (Fine, 1986).
In research which considered quality rather than opportunity for friendship at work,
Winstead, Derlega, Montgomery and Pilkington (1995) examined the relationship
between the quality of friendships at work, the hierarchical status between the friends,
and levels of job satisfaction among 722 faculty and staff of a university. Participants
were required to complete a questionnaire which included scales about the quality of
the relationship with their ‘best friend at work’ (e.g. voluntary interdependence,
maintenance difficulty, preferences for communal and exchange relationships) as well
as scales measuring job satisfaction using the Job Descriptive Index (Hackman &
Oldham, 1975; satisfaction with work, pay, people on the job, opportunities for
promotion, and supervision). Overall, the results indicate that the quality of friendship
at work is related to global job satisfaction. Specifically, the quality of an employee’s
relationship with their best friend at work is most likely to be related to satisfaction
with their actual work, and somewhat related to satisfaction with the people on the job
and supervision on the job. The quality of relationship with the best friend was least
likely to be related to opportunities for promotion. The authors argue that
opportunities for promotion tend to be evaluated independently of the participant’s
feelings about the friend, whereas satisfaction in relation to the social aspects of the
job are more likely to be evaluated in relation to the perceived quality of a friendship.
Not surprisingly, the results confirmed the notion that superior-subordinate
relationships were more difficult to maintain, with those who indicated that their
supervisor was their ‘best friend at work’ reporting less job satisfaction.
Berman, West and Ritcher (2002) in their study on manager’s perceptions of
friendship in the workplace, found that the majority of the 222 surveyed managers
have a positive orientation towards workplace friendships. The managers, overall,
indicated that friendships improved the workplace atmosphere, improved
communication, enabled mutual support and helped employees get their jobs done.
Friendships were also associated with improved supervisor-subordinate relationships
and the perception of increased employee productivity, as well as assessment of lower
stress and employee absenteeism. According to the researchers, the issue is not to
socially engineer interpersonal relationships that may place an undue strain on the
natural socialisation process, but to encourage friendships which spontaneously
develop in the course of working.
Despite the positive benefits, many organisations look upon workplace friendships
unfavourably. And in some cases they have justifiable reason to do so. Workplace
friendships can result in romantic liaisons often causing a conflict of interest, or, if the
relationship dissolves in an unpleasant discord, there can also be a breakdown in
confidence within the organisation. Even more negatively, workplace ‘friendships’
taken too far can result in sexual harassment allegations and criminal proceedings
(e.g. Gutek, 1985). Organisational stakeholders are also fearful that friendships may
undermine the employees’ loyalty to the organisation, cause unhelpful office gossip,
distract employees from work-related activities, and can be a threat to the authority of
managers due to workers creating alliances which may be detrimental to the
organisation’s mission (Berman, West, & Richter, 2002). Furthermore, some
organisational stakeholders believe that fraternising among workers will inhibit
productivity. Quite possibly, prolonged amounts of socialising would reduce
productivity and be detrimental to organisational outcomes. However, given the
current writings and empirical literature on friendship at work, it appears that
meaningful and close interpersonal relationships in the workplace represent positive
outcomes. In general, it would seem that friendship at work provides an awareness of
community, in which shared concerns and a sense of membership or belonging can be
experienced by individuals (Fine, 1986).
Towards a Conceptualisation and Definition of Workplace Loneliness
Despite the workplace being regarded as a social institution, for some employees
merely being in a social environment is not sufficient to conquer feelings of social
deprivation and loneliness. In fact evidence suggests that loneliness has a weak
relationship with actual social contact. For example, research by Jones (1981)
indicates that college students who are lonely have just as much social contact with
others as do students who do not report being lonely. If such results were
generalisable to the work environment, one could argue that employees who work in a
socially active environment could potentially feel lonely.
Another angle to consider when conceptualising work-based loneliness is that
loneliness tends to be more intense and painful when the individual feels lonely in a
social environment, rather than feeling lonely as a result of being alone (Sermat,
1980). According to Sermat’s (1980) study, which examined hundreds of essays on
the experience of loneliness, it is more difficult to cope with loneliness that persists in
spite of the fact that one is in the company of peers. Such findings have ramifications
for feeling lonely at work, in which loneliness may be amplified due to the social
nature of the work environment. For instance, some employees who work in large
teams may lack the opportunity, if so desired, to share their thoughts, feelings, and
concerns (work-related or otherwise) with other employees despite working alongside
one another.
Arguably however, the individual’s sense of social and emotional deprivation at work
will be amorphous. Because loneliness is a complex phenomenon, its source is not
always apparent or known to the person suffering from its distress. As such, the
individual may be aware that meaningful relationships are missing and cognisant of
the distress associated with the detachment, yet they may not be mindful of what
aspects of their social relationships are deficient.
Defining Work-Related Loneliness
One of the issues with attempting to define loneliness for wide application to the
workforce is that there is a large variation in what makes individuals feel lonely, and
the way they potentially perceive relationship deficiencies in the workplace. Although
most theorists on loneliness agree that loneliness results from deficiencies in a
person’s social environment (e.g. Peplau & Perlman, 1982) it is difficult to interpret
reports of loneliness in the workplace where no obvious social deficiency is apparent.
Arguably, deficiencies in the workplace arise less from quantitative aspects and more
from environmental conditions which stifle the quality of interpersonal relationships.
It would therefore follow that being qualitatively dissatisfied with one’s relationships
at work is more closely related to loneliness than is the amount of contact with fellow
co-workers or clients. This proposition marries well with research on childhood
loneliness, suggesting the presence of just one close friend can mitigate feelings of
loneliness (e.g. Parker & Asher, 1993).
Furthering this line of enquiry, it is also important to recognise that an individual
could feel lonely whilst experiencing an invasion of privacy or feeling socially
crowded or burdened. It could well be that excessive social contact or mismatched
interpersonal relationships could be as distressing as loneliness, depending on the
individual’s social needs. As such, loneliness at work could occur where there is a
craving for a change in the quality of social relationships rather than simply the desire
for more relationships.
As indicated in the beginning of this chapter, most relationships in the workplace are
heavily influenced by intra-organisational dynamics. In some organisations, social
relationships are often controlled through formal policy, organisational structure or
hierarchical chains of command. However, most employees expect that interpersonal
or informal relationships will spontaneously develop in the course of working. In fact,
the development of relationships at work is a significant reason why many people
continue to work in jobs they dislike.
Given that the amount of social contact is often influenced by the characteristics of
the job or the organisation, the expected socialisation process can often be inhibited.
This can therefore create discrepancies between the desired quality of social contact
and the actual development of work-based relationships. Therefore, loneliness at
work manifests itself as the distress caused by the perceived lack of good quality
interpersonal relationships between employees in a work environment. Recognising
that loneliness is not synonymous with actual social contact, this thesis argues that the
discrepancy between actual and desired camaraderie at work, and the inability to
rectify this discrepancy, can engender feelings of loneliness. In other words,
employees can feel lonely and have difficulty in developing strong relationships at
work even when contact with other employees or clients is frequent. As such, the
discrepancy arises when the desired quality of interpersonal relationships at work is
higher than the actual level. One of the aims of this thesis is to explore the factors that
contribute towards a discrepancy between the desired and actual levels.
Consideration of the Interaction between the Person and the Environment
Many people experience loneliness ranging from mild disappointment with the quality
of relationships to debilitating and emotionally severe psychological distress
associated with a lack of interpersonal ties. Intuitively, some employees would be
more vulnerable than others to feeling lonely, both in terms of personal inadequacies
and environmental conditions. Conceivably however, the origins of work-based
loneliness are not exclusively part of the individual’s characteristics. Organisational
factors such as a negative social or emotional environment, poor job design and lack
of support could, in part, be responsible for engendering feelings of loneliness at
work. Given this line of inquiry, loneliness would be considered partly situation
specific and vary according to social context. As such, environmental factors can
reduce the possibilities of maintaining satisfying social relationships. For instance, co-
workers who are in direct competition for scarce resources may find it difficult to be
supportive of one another (Perlman & Peplau, 1984).
Of course, some organisational factors may have a more profound temporary impact
on feelings of loneliness, such as departmental relocation, job rotation or receiving a
promotion. Generally speaking, these situations disrupt the individual’s social
network and would be considered strong precipitating factors for the onset of
loneliness. Existing loneliness literature would rightly argue that the degree of
loneliness experienced by the individual in each of these situations would depend very
much on personality characteristics and behavioural patterns. Unfortunately however,
the longer a person remains in a negative social climate and exposed to negative or
disruptive interpersonal relationships, the greater the probability of feeling lonely and
isolated (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1998).
Arguably, loneliness fluctuates around an average level for each individual, with each
average differing from person to person given the contextual situation and the
individual’s response to it. In this respect, loneliness is considered an enduring trait-
like phenomenon, caused predominately by factors within the person, such as social
competence and assertiveness, as opposed to being caused primarily by situational or
environmental factors. The distinction between trait and state loneliness has been
examined by relatively few empirical studies. Those who have discussed it (e.g.
Cutrona, 1982; Young, 1982) argue that the differentiation between those individuals
who are chronically lonely and those who are temporarily affected more by their
social environment, arises in the exhibition of more long-term cognitive and
behavioural interpersonal deficits. Such deficits include personality variables such as
shyness, self-consciousness, depression, negative self-concept, self-esteem and
inhibited sociability (Marangoni & Ickes, 1989). Those who suffer from chronic
loneliness tend to manifest ‘anti-social’ behaviours, in effect enhancing their
propensity to feel lonely.
Intuitively, there is reason to consider loneliness as a phenomenon influenced by both
environmental factors and personal characteristics. Thought about in this way, the
manifestation of loneliness in the workplace can then be addressed through specific
organisational factors and the impact they have on the individual. In order to
specifically assess whether loneliness in the workplace is caused by the environment
or personal factors, the variables under study would have to be manipulated
experimentally in order to demonstrate causal links. Because such manipulations are
not psychologically viable, nor ethically possible, concluding that loneliness is caused
by the either the environment or the person, using alternative research methods, would
be misleading. Therefore, it is more likely that correlational cross-sectional
assessments of loneliness are tapping into both environmental causes and personal
characteristics. For the purposes of the present research, loneliness at work has been
conceptualised as a phenomenon that can be influenced both by individual differences
and by organisational factors.
Interaction theory argues that individual differences arise through the existence of the
relationship between the person and their environment. The idea that both personal
characteristics and environmental conditions can influence psychological variables is
certainly not a new proposition in the social sciences. Indeed, seven decades ago
Freeman (1934) argued that the combined influence of demography and personality in
conjunction with environmental characteristics influences individual differences in
intelligence scores. The conceptual development of person-environment theories can
be also be seen in personality and stress research (e.g. Cox, 1978; Lazarus, 1991). Cox
(1978) for example conceptualised occupational stress as the transaction between the
person and their environment. Cox’s underlying theory, which was influenced by the
work of Lazarus and his colleagues, stipulates that stress is an individual perceptual
phenomenon cyclically influenced by feedback mechanisms within the person’s
external environment. More recently, Cox (1993) has argued that the experience of
stress at work is associated with the exposure to particular physical or psychosocial
conditions of work, and the employees’ realisation that they are having difficulty in
coping with certain aspects of their work situation. If loneliness at work is to be
described as the psychological state which arises when there is a negative imbalance
between an individual’s perception of their interpersonal relationships and their actual
relationships, then it follows that the phenomenon would be influenced by the
cognitive processes and emotional reactions which underpin the individual’s
interactions within their work environment.
The notion that personal and environmental factors can influence loneliness in the
workplace is valuable for two reasons. Firstly, similarly with interaction theory, it is
important to recognise that the relationship between the work environment and the
employee’s reaction to work play a dual role in the development of loneliness. As
such, considering loneliness from an interaction perspective is widely applicable to
the workplace environment. For example, work-related loneliness could well be
triggered by an organisational climate fostering individualism, coupled with an
individual’s tendency to shy away from social moments (e.g. morning teatime, idle
chit chat). As such, work-based loneliness can be precipitated by the organisational
environment and influenced by factors that predispose an individual to experience
loneliness. Additionally, it is important to be aware that employees bring certain
cognitive, emotional, behavioural and personality characteristics to the workplace,
which influence and have an effect on the individual’s feelings about the work
environment. Moreover, certain features of the work environment can lead an
individual to act in restricted ways, which is perhaps different from their usual self.
This mismatch between the core self and the organisation’s values (that is, a lack of
person-environment fit) could, among other things, lead to a lonely existence at work.
In many ways, the workplace is merely one environment in which loneliness can
surface. However, this particular social environment has been overlooked in both the
loneliness and organisational literature. Endeavouring to understand the nature of
work-related loneliness and the relationship it has with specific organisational and
personality factors will allow for a better understanding of how loneliness manifests
itself in the workplace.
Development of the Loneliness at Work Scale
In order to empirically study loneliness in the workplace it is first necessary to have
some way of measuring it. As indicated in the previous chapter, researchers in the past
have utilised global measures of loneliness to assess work-related loneliness.
Measuring loneliness in this way can produce ambiguous results, in that it is not clear
what aspects of loneliness or relationship deficiencies are specifically being measured.
According to Russell (1982) scales developed for specific constructs h