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Defeat Employee Loneliness and Worry With CliftonStrengths

Defeat Employee Loneliness and Worry With CliftonStrengths

by Brian J. Brim, Ed.D., and Dana Williams

Story Highlights

  • 24% of U.S. adults report feeling loneliness; 56% report feeling worry
  • Employees must feel connected to their work to combat loneliness, disengagement
  • CliftonStrengths can help people make meaningful daily connections

We are in unprecedented times, and people are feeling lonely and worried. Gallup's probability-based web panel earlier this month showed that 24% of Americans report experiencing loneliness during a lot of the day, and 56% report experiencing worry.

Why? Nearly a quarter of U.S. workers (23%) say they've had their hours reduced, been temporarily laid off or permanently let go because of COVID-19. Seventy-five percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat worried that they or a family member will be exposed to the coronavirus. Eight in 10 say their life has been disrupted "a fair amount" or "a great deal" -- and all of this distancing and disruption brings loneliness and worry.

Gallup's State of the American Workplace report shows us what workers need -- to be coached, cared about, understood and developed -- but about two-thirds of U.S. employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged. As a result, they feel psychologically disconnected from their work and workplace, and this was before COVID-19 removed them from where they were accustomed to spending most of their waking hours.

That disengagement costs business. The reduction in collaboration, motivation, profitability and productivity associated with disengagement reduces the U.S. economy by $450 billion to $550 billion a year. And epidemic levels of loneliness and worry can hurt people: They're both associated with serious health issues, including anxiety and depression.

And with social distancing and remote work at all-time highs, reducing levels of loneliness and worry may seem like an impossible task. We're all wired a little differently, so generalized organizational initiatives might fall short of curing workers' concerns. Unless we play to those differences.

Focusing on workers' innate strengths can help them overcome their uncertainties -- and the manager plays a crucial role in the process.

Understand strengths to combat the effects of loneliness.

Gallup's CliftonStrengths assessment reflects inborn neurology, which is unique to everyone. Naturally, then, everyone's need for connection is unique to them as well. Take, for instance, the CliftonStrengths themes of Ideation, Relator and Maximizer. A person with talents in those themes may thrive in the company of others whom they know and trust -- with people they're free to think out loud with and, eventually, arrive at a plan. That process is emotionally fulfilling in a profound way, but the impact comes more from the shared activity than the outcome.

On the other hand, a person with the CliftonStrengths themes of Achiever, Relator and Focus may do better when they have connections that primarily accomplish outcomes. Working shoulder to shoulder with others to achieve an objective gives that person immense satisfaction. But the achievement is key -- the outcome puts a halo around the interaction, which gives the connection meaning.

It goes to show that while we all need different kinds of connections, we all need to feel connected somehow. A new Cigna study on the state of loneliness in the U.S. found that employees who said they have good coworker relationships were 10 points less lonely on an 80-point scale. It's no coincidence that two of the 12 elements of employee engagement entail believing someone at work cares about you and having a best friend at work. Managers play a crucial role in coordinating those connections -- and understanding employees' CliftonStrengths helps. With that insight, managers can identify the opportunities that offer the most meaning to each individual and generate the greatest impact on business outcomes. They're perfectly positioned to help workers deal with loneliness at work and overcome it.

And managers need to use that capacity deliberately, now more than ever.

Incorporating a strengths-based approach is one way to be more deliberate. If you manage a person who needs brainstorming and collaboration (i.e., CliftonStrengths themes Ideation, Relator, Maximizer), find a way to make connections happen for that person. In today's world, that means remotely -- so get that employee into a virtual room once a week to see, talk to and work with some of their favorite partners. If you have a highly goal-oriented employee who wants to tackle a common objective with a trusted partner (Achiever, Relator, Focus), make sure you're both clear on what success looks like and how they plan to check in with their key partner to give updates and discuss successes and struggles.

Beyond individual coaching sessions, managers can hold virtual team strengths sessions in which team members can learn more about one another's strengths. That allows them to create strengths-based partnerships to become even more connected and productive while becoming less lonely and worried. One Gallup case study found that among teams that had some members complete the CliftonStrengths assessment, inclusion scores were 30% higher. Feeling that you belong and that you're valued and appreciated combats loneliness and worry -- and strengths can help.

Managers can help build relationships and belonging.

Gallup has been studying the changing will of the workforce for some time, and has found that today, workers want a coach, not a boss. It's a positive development for business: Managers who are effective coaches -- those with high managerial talent -- achieve higher rates of employee engagement. Highly engaged employees are 21% more profitable, have 20% higher sales and have 70% fewer safety incidents.

Successful managers are characterized by their ability to motivate workers, approach decision-making analytically, set goals and arrange resources, influence teams to push through adversity and -- importantly -- build committed teams with deep bonds. Good coaching affects employees' engagement, of course, but it has implications on their work loneliness and employee performance too: Managers must know and care about their workers as people to coach them. And being known and cared about is an antidote for loneliness, worry and disengagement.

The reduction in collaboration, motivation, profitability and productivity associated with disengagement reduces the U.S. economy by $450 billion to $550 billion a year.

Interestingly, one Gallup employee engagement study looked at how perceptions of a manager's approachability influenced their employees' engagement. We found that 55% of those who strongly agree that they can talk with their manager about nonwork-related issues are engaged, as are 54% of those who say they can approach their manager with any type of question. Conversely, when employees strongly disagree with either of those statements, fewer than one in 10 are engaged.

Good coaches build good relationships with their direct reports, it appears, and that can help reduce loneliness and worry. But good coaches connect workers with each other too, to improve workplace relationships. Connecting people via their strengths creates meaningful bonds -- but the attempt itself shows the worker that someone cares. And that matters a lot.

Loneliness is a business problem with a human solution.

Organizations can support managers and their teams by opening the door to strengths. They can encourage employees to learn and leverage their strengths in new ways during these difficult times. Managers can host strengths social hours online. Or pair two team members with complementary strengths for a virtual strengths discussion -- they'll learn more about themselves and each other, and they'll make a real connection. Executives can post videos about their own strengths profile and how it helps them navigate difficult times. All of these are ways to combat loneliness and worry. But it takes organizations, leaders, managers, teams and employees to bring it to life.

In Fred Rogers' 1997 Emmys acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award, he told the celebrity-filled audience, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … 10 seconds of silence." Then he looked at his watch, looked at the audience and said softly, "I'll watch the time." In just a few seconds, his words moved many of the most famous, most successful people in the world to tears.

People need leaders who can help them build deep, meaningful connections at work so they can become part of something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, many managers haven't been trained for -- or don't have the talent for -- the emotional aspect of people management.

That needs to change. Even before COVID-19, people were suffering what's been called an "epidemic of loneliness." And now we're more isolated than ever before, and even more worried.

But leadership can help. Committing to building strengths-based connections will result in a healthier, more engaged, better-coached culture when the pandemic is over. Organizations and leaders may need to step up development initiatives -- especially for managers -- to get there, but the results are worth it. Strength-based workplaces are proven to be significantly more collaborative and inclusive.

Loneliness, worry and disengagement are bad for people and bad for business. But people and companies thrive when coworkers get to know each other as individuals and achieve success together as trusted partners.

Combat your employees' loneliness and disengagement:


Brian J. Brim, Ed.D., is a Senior Practice Consultant for Gallup.

Dana Williams is Sr. Strategic Advisor, Marketing, at Southwest Airlines.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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