It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, and the theme this year is loneliness. Amber O’Brien is a registered mental health nurse with over 15 years experience in the mental health sector. She is an expert in workplace mental health and the founder of Headworks, a mental health at work training and consulting company. Headworks work globally with organisations to upskill their people in promoting and sustaining well-being and supporting employees with mental health problems. Amber is passionate about using evidence-based initiatives to achieve real outcomes, not just tick a box.

Here Amber talks about loneliness, how it affects technology leaders and how we can help ourselves and others.

Amber O'Brien loneliness blog
Amber O’Brien

Loneliness is a universal human experience; we’ve likely all felt lonely at some point in our lives. Our need for meaningful social connections has never been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic; in fact, the number of people regularly experiencing loneliness more than doubled during times of restrictions.

Last year CTO Craft carried out a survey to investigate the effect of loneliness on those in the tech industry. The results were a fascinating yet concerning insight into the reality of working in tech and how loneliness can be a common experience for leaders in the industry.

We’ll look at why those in tech might experience loneliness and what to do to ease loneliness at the top.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is different from simply being alone. It occurs when we feel the quantity and/or quality of our relationships is lacking, leaving us without a sense of belonging, being heard, or being understood.

Meaningful relationships help us to regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and make us happier overall. We need relationships, so much so that according to one study that looked at the brains of socially isolated people, we crave human connection when we’re lonely, just as we crave food when we’re hungry.

The concept of being ‘lonely in a crowd’ is a common experience; people can have lots of social connections but still feel lonely. This ‘emotional loneliness’ can go overlooked by others because; ‘how can somebody with loads of friends, who has a packed social schedule, be lonely?’. Yet if we don’t feel understood or emotionally connected to people, we can feel just as alone as those who are socially isolated.

Why would loneliness affect tech leaders?

Surely all leaders experience loneliness in the same way? Possibly not, but often those in tech have their own ‘language’ which others may not understand or relate to. If colleagues lack technical understanding, they may not be able to discuss in-depth ideas. In most cases, tech leaders oversee high pressure, high-cost projects that require strategic decision-making, a lot of responsibility and generally a lot of moving parts.

In addition, tech leaders may also feel alone in making key decisions because others may not possess the knowledge to understand or support them fully. This is exactly what was discovered in CTO Craft’s 2021 survey about loneliness in technology.

Why is loneliness bad for us?

Loneliness can have very real consequences, impacting our mental and physical health. One study by a team at UCLA found that people who experienced chronic loneliness had a distinct pattern in the gene expression linked to inflammation.

Inflammation is the first step in immune response when the body produces chemicals to fight off infection or injury. It also occurs when we experience stress. Short-term inflammation is helpful, for example, if we cut a finger, but chronic inflammation is linked to poor health. This goes some way to explaining why long-term loneliness is associated with an increased risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and even premature mortality.

Loneliness at work

The need for social connectedness does not just fall outside of work. We spend a large amount of time at work, and social fulfilment is just as important here as in our personal lives. A Future Workplace/Virgin study revealed that 70% of employees say that their workplace friendships are the most important aspect of a happy working life, and 58% of people would turn down a higher paid job if it meant not getting on with their colleagues.

Despite this, 1 in 10 people report having no friends at work. Beyond the established negative effects of loneliness, a lack of social connectedness at work means we are less likely to be fruitful and productive, further lowering our self-esteem.

Loneliness and technology leaders

Those at the top tend to experience higher rates of loneliness, with around half of CEOs reporting experiencing loneliness at work, and 61% of these feeling that this hinders their job. One reason for this may be that no matter how friendly, fun, or compassionate a CEO can come across, employees just don’t feel fully comfortable or relaxed around them and put up their guard.

The CTO Craft survey results highlighted that a staggering 97% said they had felt lonely at one point, with 63% admitting they sometimes felt lonely in their current role and a worrying 19% feeling that way all the time. The main reason for loneliness was due to a lack of connection with colleagues (24%), followed by workplace politics and purpose/values misalignment (both at 15%) and feeling left out (11%).

But is it really a huge surprise? If you’re a CTO or leader in technology, the role by nature is one of potential isolation and separation from the rest of the workforce. A leader is expected to show commitment, positivity and confidence, so it’s not unexpected that they may feel alone in decision making and support.

After all, everyone else in the business expects them to know the answers and remain calm and composed in all situations. Yet, behind the scenes, they may feel isolated and without a solid network or sounding board to help them cope in high pressured situations.

Who supports leaders?

Everyone in an organisation will have a manager they can go to for support or tricky situations. Most will have peers they can moan to or share concerns with. But who looks after the CTO and leaders? Who really has the technical knowledge at a senior level to help them make decisions or foster solutions to technical challenges?

And the pandemic hasn’t made these issues any easier. Technology in the workplace has taken on an even more important role, and the pressure for technology leaders to serve the workforce has increased. And with teams now more spread out, there is more potential for many leaders to feel alone.

What can we do to help ourselves?

Loneliness can seriously affect our health, but it’s important to know that there are steps we can take to reduce these feelings:

Remember, you’re not alone in feeling lonely – trying new things and connecting with new people can be nerve-wracking when self-esteem is already low, but it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not alone in feeling this way. Everyone has felt lonely at some point in their lives; there’s nothing ‘weird’ about you.

Find similar leaders – by joining networking groups and communities (like CTO Craft!), you can share issues or concerns with others who might be in the same or similar situation. This can be comforting to feel like others understand and are supporting you.

Consider mentoring or coaching – if you’re new to a leadership role in technology, it might be a bit of a shock to the system! If you find a coach or mentor to support you, you will have a sounding board, someone who understands your position because they’ve been there, or someone who can help you find the answers you need.

Focus on quality, not quantity – it’s not about the number of friends you have at work; it’s about the quality of the relationship. Focus on building and maintaining one or two meaningful connections, not filling your social calendar.

Consider volunteering – there are always tons of events and volunteering opportunities; whether it’s mentoring others or helping colleagues, volunteering is a great way to make new connections, improve self-esteem, and feel a greater sense of purpose.

Be mindful of how you use social media – when we feel lonely, it’s easy to compare our lives to those we see on social media, but it’s important to remember that virtual lives and real lives are nothing alike. On the other hand, social media is often a helpful starting point for social connections and can lead to face-to-face interactions. Keep a check of how social media is impacting your wellbeing, and if it’s just making you feel more lonely right now, delete that app for a bit.

Pursue your hobbies or learn a new skill – doing things you enjoy will not only boost your mood, but often it will give you an opportunity to meet new people. Whether it’s taking art lessons, learning a new language, or joining a sports team, pursuing things we are interested in is fundamental to our mental health and enhances our social connectedness.

What can we do to help tech colleagues?

Be there for others – don’t be afraid to ask someone how they’re feeling, whatever their level in an organisation. All too often, people still think that their emotions, and overall mental health, are things we shouldn’t talk or ask about openly. Unsurprisingly, this leads to feelings of loneliness and often worsens anxiety and low mood. Just being there to talk can have a huge impact.

Make an effort with ‘quiet people’ – some people avoid social situations or interactions, but this doesn’t mean they enjoy being alone. People may be naturally shy or may have underlying reasons for avoidance (for example, people on the autism spectrum may experience higher levels of social anxiety). Making repeated efforts to involve and include people can help to build their confidence, and with time they may start becoming more involved.

Headworks offer evidence-based courses created and delivered by mental health professionals to support mental health at work. If you would like further information about the services they offer, please contact them.


If you or your CTO / technology lead would benefit from any of the services offered by the CTO Craft community, use the Contact Us button at the top or email us here and we’ll be in touch!

Subscribe to Tech Manager Weekly for a free weekly dose of tech culture, hiring, development, process and more.