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‘I’m So Lonely — But Is Talking About It Annoying My Co-workers?’

Illustration: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I want your advice about “asking for what you need” during this time of pandemic. I’ve been at my job nearly seven months now and I love it. It’s a great step into a sector that’s hard to get into and that I’ve wanted to be in for a long time. We have a small, tight-knit team that I really enjoy working with.

As of the last two weeks, I’ve been working from home, and we’ve been informed that this will be the case indefinitely. My normal job is almost impossible to do from home because we deal with paper files that we can’t take home, so we’re plugging gaps in other teams in the organization. 

I’m really struggling to adjust to this new reality. We collaborate online and keep in touch, but it’s not the same. I have to make a concerted effort to talk to people now and I’m constantly worried that I’m annoying people or distracting them from their work. I didn’t realize how much I rely on work for stability until this happened.

I’m really lonely. When I’ve tried to mention how isolated I feel, I’m met with the “we’re really lucky compared to x/y/z” response from some of my colleagues or it’s otherwise been glossed over. I know I’m very lucky to have a stable contract and guaranteed pay because that isn’t the case for many right now, so I feel awful for feeling like this.

I know it would help if my manager were to check in with me on the phone every day or two, but I don’t know how to ask without seeming needy and feeling like I’m wasting his time. Currently he’s operating on “you can talk to me if you need anything” policy but not actively reaching out. He has other responsibilities and is taking on more work in the face of the crisis, and I just feel like I should be coping. I’m usually pretty self-sufficient and he’s said he likes that about me. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t always acknowledge the messages that I do send him, because it just reinforces my thinking. I need more from him right now but I don’t know how to ask.

I just don’t want to feel so cut off from everything for the entire time this lasts.

You can be lucky and still be lonely. You can recognize you’re in a better situation than others and still feel isolated and unmoored. That doesn’t make you ungrateful; this is hard, and it’s okay to acknowledge that it’s hard.

We tend to talk about working from home as if it’s always a perk, but some people hate working from home! And working from home on occasion is different than doing it every day, and doing it because you want to is different than doing it because you have to (and without the right equipment and support to do it effectively). Plus, you’re not even doing your normal job right now. You’re on loan to other teams, doing work you don’t normally do. Of course you feel unmoored!

There are lots of pieces of this situation that you can’t do much about, but feeling guilty for being unhappy is the one that’s most in your control. So I say, give yourself permission to be unhappy right now. Sometimes a situation warrants unhappiness, and you don’t need to beat yourself up over that. It’s okay to decide that this deeply sucks.

But there are other things you can try as well.

Mentioning to colleagues how isolated you feel hasn’t gotten the response you were hoping for, but what if you tried a different approach? Can you suggest a weekly virtual happy hour for your team? Make sure it’s fully optional since people don’t need additional work obligations right now, but some of your colleagues might welcome a low-pressure way to connect with each other. Also, are there particular co-workers you have better rapport with than others? Try checking in to see how they’re doing, sending a funny link here and there, and other low-key methods of connecting. People might not have the emotional bandwidth to talk about loneliness with a colleague right now, but might be glad for lighter social contact.

As for your boss, it’s probably not reasonable to ask him to check in on you by phone every day, but can you set up a standing weekly call? A regular weekly meeting with your manager is a good practice anyway, even in normal times. If your sense is that he’d resist having another weekly obligation on his calendar, try initiating it on an as-needed basis instead. Throughout the week, jot down things you’d like to run by him, and then when you’ve got a small list, ask to set up a call to discuss them.

Depending on what he’s like and the type of rapport the two of you have, you also might be able to say outright, “I’m feeling pretty disconnected from our team right now. Any chance we can check in more frequently? I know you’re busy, but just being able to touch base once a week would really help.” Frankly, the fact that he’s praised your self-sufficiency in the past gives you more standing to ask this now! A good manager will figure that since you have a track record of functioning independently, if you’re asking for more support now it’s probably because it’s truly necessary. And that past self-sufficiency should buy you some good will now that you do need help.

Beyond that, don’t limit yourself to co-workers. Are there other people in your field who you’ve clicked with and could try connecting more with now? Are there online discussions for your industry that you can join to expand the group of people you’re in touch with? (LinkedIn is a good place to find those.)

And look beyond the professional realm too: Make sure you’re staying in touch with friends and family — which might sound obvious, but often when people are lonely, they worry that reaching out more will bother others. With friends and family, there’s generally much more room to tell people you’re struggling and ask for help, so do that if you haven’t already.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I’m So Lonely. Is Talking About It Annoying My Co-workers?’