Office parties and exhaustion may bring out loneliness at work

Infographic With Data About Holiday Parties

Infographic and article by Patricia Bouweraerts, Editor

Brown sugar and a sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts are classic ingredients in winter holiday recipes — and at the same time, workdays with tight deadlines mix in with nights of frenetic shopping, a cup level full of parties … and the pinch of loneliness for a batch of working people.

Office parties create opportunities for even more small talk between teams with strained relationships. Festive, glam gatherings increase the potential to remind singles of what is missing in relation to couples, and offer temptations for those who are living alcohol-free or dieting. Also, pure exhaustion can magnify loneliness, researchers have found.

Typically working people shake it off and rock their festive outfits, and at other times they open up about difficulties experienced at the “most wonderful time of the year.”

In the responses to a Quora question, “Does anyone feel lonely at work around the holidays,” a customer service liaison, Sheila Curry, shared her experience.

“We have around 35 employees in our office,” Curry wrote. “Most of my co-workers are married or in a serious relationship. I’ve worked there for 17 years. I love my job. I love my co-workers, because we’re like a family. One thing I dread every year is our company Christmas party. Everyone brings their spouses or significant others. Now you must also understand that I have two grown children and a family that loves me dearly. Holidays are hard for me personally, even though I’m surrounded by people who care about me. So yes I feel lonely around the holidays and I’ve even cried when I’m driving home from our Christmas party, because I feel so lonely.”

Respiratory therapist Kelly Russo agrees.

“I am an only child and I’m divorced so my (adult) children have to share time with seeing their father and in one case, her in-laws, as well,” she wrote on “I have never been the type to have a lot of friends because my family has always been everything to me. When I divorced (years ago), I lost half of my family (sister, brother in laws, nieces and nephews, etc.).”

She sometimes still feels left out.

“So other people’s plans can make me feel lonely,” Russo wrote. “I just try to plan for the time I’m going to be alone.”

Communal and exchange relationship mismatch

Porcelain Holiday Scene Image

Holiday village decorations, 2013. Photos by P. Bouweraerts

Psychologist and associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University Adam Waytz wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that he stopped attending a weekly gourmet lunch his company’s management set up to help employees get to know each other better. One reason he thought the lunchtime gatherings weren’t working for him related to the usual and eventual turn of their conversation to work matters, and the hour ceased being a lunch break—it was simply more work talk, and less time to take a mental breather.

“Office holiday parties, workplace mixers, and organizational retreats — complete with ‘trust falls’ and the like — have become the stuff of cinematic parody,” Waytz wrote.

Factors that prevent true connection or bonding at work can be grouped into a few common psychological tendencies.

“At those workplace lunches, my colleagues and I succumbed to one of the tendencies — what psychologists call the common information effect,” he wrote. “This is the inclination of people with different expertise, interests, and experiences to immediately gravitate to topics they have in common. In our case, the topic was work.”

Another aspect at play when it comes to office parties is a mismatch of human relationship styles — that people’s comfort zones are different depending on whether they’re relating on a friend level or in a co-working situation. He wrote that these styles have been introduced and documented by researchers.

“The foundation for communal relationships is providing to others on the basis of their needs; we typically form these relationships with friends and family,” Waytz wrote. “In exchange relationships, a person gives in anticipation of receiving something in return. Not surprisingly, this is the type of relationship we typically form with colleagues. Mixing communal behaviors with exchange relationships — often the implicit function of work-driven social gatherings — can be discomfiting.”

Communal behaviors include talking with others about personal vulnerabilities or asking for emotional support. In an exchange relationship, such as between co-workers, attempting to connect in sensitive or demonstrative ways may make the other person uncomfortable, he wrote.

Loneliness from exhaustion

It is understandable that loneliness arises when individuals are apart from their families during the holidays, however it also can be associated with exhaustion.

“In analyzing the General Social Survey of 2016, we found that, compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted,” wrote Emma Seppala, Ph.D. and Marissa King, Ph.D. in the Harvard Business Review. “Close to 50 percent of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32 percent increase from two decades ago. What’s more, there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. This loneliness is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout.”

King and Seppala wrote the book “The Happiness Track,” and as they gathered the data on how many individuals feel exhausted, they found that burnout was a factor across many occupational fields.

“Our work suggests that the problem is pervasive across professions and up and down corporate hierarchies,” they wrote.

Feeling loneliness isn’t just imagined, either.

“As anyone who has experienced it can attest to, loneliness is an emotionally painful feeling; it even registers as physical pain in the brain,” King and Seppala added.

Will skipping the office party help alleviate holiday blues?

Some may consider the option of declining an office party, simply heading off the occasion to visualize merry and bright couples. Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., adjunct professor of management, business and economics at Virginia Wesleyan University advises workers not to miss the gathering.

“Don’t pass up the invitation to an office party; not attending could hurt your reputation,” he wrote on the website “And when you attend, do spend at least 30 minutes at the party for appearances. But don’t overstay your welcome by partying until the wee hours.”
Porcelain Holiday Scene Image
Hansen writes that one should enjoy a holiday office party, but remember it is a work event and treat it as more of a friendly opportunity to get to know workmates better.

“Do show interest in others,” he added. “Do be gracious and thank co-workers and team members for all their help and hard work during the past year.”

He also reminds employees to thank the party organizers and management for hosting it.

Other experts say that it’s acceptable to decline a holiday event.

“Some people live far from family and miss seeing their loved ones this time of year; others dread going to holiday parties and New Year’s Eve celebrations without a partner and end up staying home,” wrote individual and couples counselor and author Elizabeth Scott on “It’s also common for people to feel emotional distance from the people they’re with, thus feeling lonely even if they’re in a room full of people.”

Scott suggests doing nice things for yourself such as enjoying a hobby, learning something new, taking a bath, or treating yourself to time for reading a good book.

It will also help to know you’re not the only one feeling blue, by far.

“In fact, in a poll on this site, over half of respondents said they ‘usually’ feel loneliness over the holidays, and only a small percentage said they ‘never’ do,” she wrote.

In addition to being good to yourself and knowing others are also feeling somewhat isolated, helpful techniques Scott suggests include the following:

  • Rethink expectations: know that a relationship with a family member is still love, even if it’s not perfect
  • Get connected: it’s harder to feel lonely when you’re reaching out to people and expressing friendly greetings
  • Cultivate gratitude with a gratitude journal
  • Give to others: donate to a cause you believe in and possibly meet other like-minded individuals
  • Examine your feelings: find specific causes for loneliness, build more supportive friendships, schedule a visit with a therapist

Friendliness during the workday is reassuring when skipping the party

“As much as you’d like to think that personal time is personal, skipping after-work soirees may give colleagues the wrong idea,” wrote Matt Villano in the New York Times. “Maximillian Wachtel, owner of Cherry Creek Psychology, a psychology practice in Denver, says that in many companies, colleagues see willingness to socialize as a sign of interest in being part of the team.”
Porcelain Holiday Scene Image
For one reason or another, one may miss an office party, but the desire to be part of the company team may be conveyed with an approachable and friendly outlook.

“Even if you can’t attend weeknight happy hours, there are ways to show colleagues that you care,” Villano wrote. “Before the event, inquire about what you will miss. Afterward, ask for details about how it went. J. Leslie McKeown, president and chief executive of Evna, an employee development company in Marblehead, Mass., takes his interest a step further. When Mr. McKeown knows that he can’t join an after-work party, he heads to the bar ahead of time and leaves money with the bartender to buy the first round of drinks.”

It’s also preferable to respond to an invitation one way or the other, and not ignore it.

“Decline graciously,” he wrote. “It is not necessary to make excuses for why you cannot attend, but if you do, truthful and apologetic explanations work best.”

Management consultant Alison Green agrees.

Green wrote on Ask A Manager that an employee can make an effort to reach out during the work day if he or she is concerned about appearing as a ‘grump’ for not participating in after-hours events.

“Make a deliberate point of being warm and friendly with people — ask about their weekend or their interests, talk about movies or TV with them, share something about your own interests or personal life, and so forth,” she wrote. “Be kind and friendly and take a genuine interest in people, and you shouldn’t come across as a grump at all.”

Warmheartedness and empathy — these are timeless ingredients for a recipe of reduced stress and loneliness during the season of giving, receiving, and beyond.

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