The Power of belonging – and the pain of loneliness – in the workplace: Belonging Space research

38% of UK workers experience loneliness in the workplace
Belonging Space research explored conflict, collaboration and belonging at work

Recent research in the US, published in Harvard Business Review last month, has found that in the US:

“40% of people say that they feel isolated at work, and the result has been lower organizational commitment and engagement. U.S. businesses spend nearly 8 billion dollars each year on diversity and inclusion (D&I) trainings that miss the mark because they neglect our need to feel included.”

This resonates with our own research of 2016, conducted by Belonging Space in association with 3Gem Research, which revealed that more than one-third (38%) of the UK working population has felt isolated and/or lonely in the workplace.

This article is a re-run of our findings in 2016 and how this supports our concept of the Power of Belonging at work.

As this was just before the Brexit Referendum we are interested to compare to current state and will be conducting new research in the next few months.
Email us if you would like to be kept up to date on Belonging Space’s research.

The study, that polled 1000 UK workers in February 2016, also explored to what extent UK workers feel a sense of belonging to their organisation and gauges whether the UK worker is experiencing ‘conflict’ or ‘collaboration’ at work.

Why do we feel a sense of belonging?

Responses showed the importance of feeling a sense of belonging. Indeed, a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. It’s deeply wired in us. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary outlined a comprehensive premise in their 1995 paper  “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation”

What do we belong to most – team or whole organisation?

More than a quarter (27%) of respondents did not feel a sense of belonging to their whole organisation but did feel more connected and a greater sense of belonging to their division or department (50%) and to their immediate team (51%).
Commenting on the findings, Isabel Collins, Founder of Belonging Space says:

“This follows the pattern typical for many organisations. After all, we humans are a tribal species; it’s natural for people to feel a stronger sense of belonging in smaller, more immediate groups. It also comes from being creatures of habit – safer with the people we know.

This is why companies need to work harder at creating a sense of inclusion and belonging throughout the organisation: so that people who have never met find it easier to connect quickly, to solve problems and serve clients together. ”

How can we create a sense of belonging?

Belonging is connected to shared practice, shared purpose, with the people we see every day.

Isabel’s advice:

Belonging comes from shared Ethos and Purpose. You need a Clear Line of Sight connecting people across team, division, region and the whole company.

It can be challenging, but the commercial results are worth it. ”

The impact on commercial success is high – easy to see why it’s now an accountability of the FRC’s new Corporate Governance Code to report meaningfully on how culture, purpose and values connect to strategy.
And no, a brand slogan or raw employee engagement figures won’t cut it  with the regulator.

The pain of loneliness

Most of us want to fit in, be a part of something and take strength and enjoyment from belonging – whether it be to a circle of friends, a club or the workplace. Recent neuroscience research illustrates the human distress of loneliness and NOT belonging. The pain of social exclusion is deep and real: it is felt in the same region of the brain as physical pain.

Research, including Dr. Giorgia Silani’s study in 2014, found that ‘experience of social exclusion recruits areas coding the somatosensory components of physical pain (in the posterior insular cortex and secondary somatosensory cortex).’

Think of the worst punishments – solitary confinement, being ostracised, banished or stranded alone on a desert island. Being isolated is a more damaging experience even than being bullied.

Work can be a lonely place

And yet the survey has revealed that

38% of the UK workforce has felt isolated and lonely at work.

Interestingly, our experience of loneliness would appear to be affected by age and where in the UK we work.

Almost half (43%) of UK workers aged 18 – 24 have experienced loneliness at work

compared to 37% of 35 – 49 year olds with only just over one-third of workers who are 50+ citing any experience of isolation or loneliness.

“We’re surprised to see a higher figure in the younger generation who have a greater tech facility for connection than ever before, yet their experience is more disconnection. It suggests one challenge for business is building community between teams, the human connections that form the glue of belonging. ”

And if you are hoping for a work experience with the least likelihood of experiencing isolation – then head to the North West:  Only 27% of North West workers have experienced loneliness compared to 44% of workers in London and 46% in the East of England.

Isabel Collins says:
“Maybe this is a regional cultural tendency, or down to specific kinds of work? Did a long heritage of large-scale factory employment working side-by-side nurture stronger camaraderie? ”

The benefits – and the Dark Side – of belonging

Belonging, at best, has many benefits, for society and for business: working together, sharing effort and resources, intertwining our identity as individuals and as a community, bringing greater meaning to our work.
But of course there’s also a Dark Side to belonging: GroupThink, crowd mentality, bullying and rejection of people seen as ‘different’ or ‘other’.

We can group together in ‘tribes’ for collaboration, to build things or solve problems: and also for conflict, to protect against a perceived threat.

Belonging for Conflict or collaboration?

The survey has revealed that 40% of the UK workforce experiences a working environment that is a combination of both conflict and collaboration.

However, only 26% of younger workers (18 – 24) agree with this with over half (57%) citing the overriding work atmosphere as one of ‘strong collaboration’.

For people seeking a harmonious work environment – head to Wales. Only 29% of Welsh workers surveyed cited the potentially volatile scenario of conflict over collaboration; over half (56%) identifed an atmosphere of positivity and collaboration.

This was in stark contrast to workers in Yorkshire and Scotland where 49% cited more conflict over collaboration. 

Commenting on the findings, Isabel Collins says:

“This finding is just one insight into why belonging matters.
It’s these greater bonds built into culture that enable the sharing of ideas and problems and accelerate business growth – sorely needed in British business currently. And any disconnection will slow this up.”

Belonging, loneliness and connectedness

Belonging Space sees this evidence supporting the importance of a sense of belonging at work.

“Leaders need to be aware of isolation in the workplace and its impact on performance. The field of neuroscience has shown how connectedness is critical for innovation, cross-discipline collaboration, upholding safety and ethics.
Isolation – pulling away from any sense of belonging – is often an indicator of depression, and employers could use feedback on loneliness to help support employees’ mental health. ”

Why does belonging make a difference, and why is this relevant right now?

“At the heart of belonging is ethos: a shared sense of purpose and something to believe in. This is a binding force through difficult times, as well as a source of pride that becomes a reason to stay loyal to a business.”

Social networks are also an essential human function. According to researchers, the human brain puts strangers in one bin and the people we know in another compartment. Apparent ‘difference’ can be a dangerous disruptor of organisational belonging. James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain (fMRI) scans  to show that “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to”

Gradually, with familiarity, we connect new people with our shared identity, and belonging becomes ‘woven into our neural tapestry’.

It’s easy to see how people can retreat into the sameness of ‘my tribe’. This poses a serious business risk of Group-Think, rather than diversity of thought, and of excluding the range of talent necessary to grow the business.

Isabel Collins sums up the relevance of this 2016 research for 2019

“As companies consider the impact of Brexit, in a world of increasing cocktail of isolationism and xenophobia, and as economic pressures and talent management get tougher, belonging is a pressing issue for business. To create a culture that enables people to function at their best, collaborating towards shared goals, this research shows the critical reasons for business to take belonging seriously.

No wonder culture is at the top of the agenda for most companies’ Boards of Directors in their strategy for 2020s.”

We will be conducting new research in the next few months.
Email us to if you would like to be kept up to date on our themes.


1000 full time and part time UK workers aged 18+ were surveyed in February 2016. Conducted online, respondents were asked a number of questions with the aim of gaining insight into the working environment:
• How strongly do you feel a sense of belonging to your whole organisation?
• How strongly do you feel a sense of belonging to your division, department or discipline?
• How strongly do you feel a sense of belonging to your immediate team (say, the 5-10 people you work with most closely?
• Do you ever feel isolated or lonely in the work place?
• In your organisation at work – how would you sum up the interactions between people, teams and divisions?

The study was conducted exclusively for Belonging Space and was conducted by 3Gem Research.

For further information please contact:
Isabel Collins, Belonging Space  E:  M:07792 433680  T: 0207 833 6420   326 City Road, London EC1V 2PT