It’s often been said that it’s lonely at the top and now there’s new research to prove it. A recent survey of more than 600 men and women across the U.S. found that 53% of women in the workplace experience loneliness—and it only gets worse the higher they climb the corporate ladder.
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The study, which was conducted in February 2023 by TheLi.st, Berlin Cameron & Benenson Group, confirms what women in the workplace have long known—getting ahead is no easy feat and it’s not exactly a walk in the park once you get there.
“This research points to a workplace crisis, a mental health crisis and a pipeline crisis for women,” says Ann Shoket, CEO of TheLi.st, a private community of high-impact women in media, technology and entrepreneurship. “We did this research not to point out how lonely it is, but to point out the impact of that loneliness on their lives and their careers. It’s not that so many women are feeling lonely at their job, but they feel lonely because of their job.”
Almost 30% of senior-level women in the survey said they feel as if they don’t have anyone to talk to about work and that lack of support is taking a toll. Two-thirds of senior-level women say that work, combined with responsibilities at home, have left them feeling burned out, stressed and overwhelmed. One needs to look no further than the recent resignations of high-profile women in leadership positions, such as Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, to see a trend.
A recent study by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based executive outplacement firm, found that 167 people stepped down from CEO roles in February 2023, an 11% increase over the number of leaders who left in February 2022. For women, the reasons are varied, according to a report from McKinsey & Company and Lean In that saw women leaving leadership positions because they are likely to experience stronger headwinds than men; they’re overworked and underrecognized; and they desire a more flexible and diverse workplace culture.
“We think that loneliness and success go hand in hand—the idea of the lone wolf leader bearing all of the weight of the decisions on their own,” says Shoket. “And that is not conducive to success for women. Women feel unseen, unsupported and like they can’t be their authentic selves at work.”
What’s really at stake when it comes to loneliness
Beyond implications at work, loneliness is also linked to a number of physical and mental health issues, including higher risks of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, trouble sleeping and dementia among others. In fact, a study from the National Institute on Aging found that prolonged isolation is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
The loneliness epidemic is so prevalent that at a lecture at Yale last fall, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said, “It is both common and consequential, and that is one of the reasons why I wanted to raise the alarm that this is a public health issue.”
To help cope with the stress, nearly 92% of the senior-level women who reported being lonely in TheLi.st study said they turned to a negative coping behavior, such as alcohol, drugs, overexercising and overspending.
Loneliness is contributing to a pipeline problem for women leaders
In TheLi.st’s study, researchers found that nearly 60% of women say their feelings of loneliness or isolation have increased as their careers progressed and nearly 53% of women have declined a job, a promotion, quit or stopped working altogether because of the negative impact on their personal life.
“There’s a generation of women who are looking up the ladder at the women ahead of them and seeing what they’ve had to sacrifice, seeing how they’ve had to compartmentalize and they’re like, ‘no, thank you. I’m opting out of that,’” says Shoket.
Instead of opting out of leadership positions altogether, Denise Hamilton, CEO and founder of Watch Her Work, a digital platform for professional women, is encouraging a younger workforce to reimagine what success could look like on their terms.
“People aren’t aspiring to leadership roles the same way they used to, especially after a kind of value correction that happened during lockdown,” says Hamilton. “We had this Great Resignation, but I call it the Great Negotiation because literally everything is on the table. It’s all up for a repositioning and restructuring.”
To do that, Hamilton recommends taking into consideration what you need to succeed, and how a particular role or company may be able to support those goals.
“How are we articulating what we want in these environments instead of just stepping away from the table?” she asks. “It’s really important to be a part of the reimagining of the modern workforce.”
Loneliness is even worse for women of color
Not only is it lonely at the top, but it’s less diverse, too. The Lean In report found that only one in four people in the C-suite is a woman and only one in 20 is a woman of color. Meanwhile, TheLi.st study saw that feeling of loneliness is especially exacerbated for Black women and women of color, whose isolation is compounded by a lack of respect. Only one in five women of color strongly agree that they feel respected at work, compared to over a third of white women.
“We’re still only about one to two generations in where women have been allowed to work, let alone where they’re getting to the C-suite,” says Bea Arthur, therapist and founder of The Difference, an on-demand therapy service. “I can tell you from my own experience as an entrepreneur and working with high performers in general that if you see a woman or a person of color at the top, you know they’ve been through some shit to get there and to stay there.”
And it’s not necessarily any easier even when you’re your own boss, as Arthur can attest, recalling a time when she was the first and only Black woman and one of eight female founders at Y Combinator, a startup accelerator company, back in 2015. To help navigate her experience of often being the “first, only and different” as showrunner Shonda Rhimes once described it, Arthur leaned on the help of a coach.
“My coach reminded me that respect comes from the Latin word respicere, which means to ‘look back at, or regard,’” she says. “And that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve done, they’ll never see me as valuable. The “not being seen” piece…that’s what loneliness is—feeling alone, feeling unsupported. It’s exactly what they say, being a brown person you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”
How to combat loneliness in the workplace
In addition to coaching, Arthur has relied heavily on coworking spaces and community groups, such as TheLi.st, to help feel less alone.
“Being a member of a good coworking space that does programming, content and events where I could see other founders come and speak and meet other entrepreneurs has been such a game changer,” says Arthur. “Working from home has great flexibility, but every now and then it helps to be around other people.”
Hamilton suggests budgeting time and proactively reaching out to your friends and professional network to schedule lunch dates and coffee dates, whether they’re in-person or virtual. After all, friendships have been proven to improve our physical and mental health. But at the end of the day, it’s on companies and policies to provide better working conditions for women, especially those who are underrepresented in leadership positions.
“All the coaching we give women about how they can have better work-life balance, we have to cut that out. This is a systemic societal problem,” says Hamilton. “My advice is to be gentle with yourself and understand the challenge that’s in front of you. You don't get the promotion because you work hard. You get the promotion, because somebody above you, who has the authority to amplify you, thinks you work hard.”