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All the lonely people: The connection between sleep, loneliness and productivity

Bill Howatt Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in the Globe and Mail on November 6, 2018.

You look over at the clock, which shows 3 a.m. Waking up through the night is becoming your new norm. Such a disruptive sleep pattern means you are losing about two hours of sleep each night, so you have to operate on six hours of sleep the next day at work. By the end of the next workday, you are exhausted.

According to a recent Conference Board of Canada report, more than a quarter of Canadians reported being fatigued most days or every day of a normal work week. Employees recognized that fatigue has an impact on their work; 42 per cent indicated that their productivity and job performance were somewhat or significantly worse on the days that they were tired.

But, do you ever stop to think how a lack of sleep affects all aspects of your life? Your mental, physical and social health? There is also a relationship between sleeplessness and loneliness, and as leaders, we need to be aware of the signs if we want to understand the impact of fatigue on employee health and wellness and how it can hinder work-force productivity.

Maybe you live alone. You have friends at work with whom you chat and a few friends outside work to socialize with on weekends. For the most part, you feel your life is going okay. You’re in a job you like and you enjoy the people you work with. You see your family on holidays.

However, maybe you are becoming fearful of being alone. What you might be unaware of is how this fear is having a negative impact on your mental and physical health. Your sleeplessness may be due in part to experiencing feelings of loneliness.

One study out of University of California, Berkeley, found that loneliness increases mortality risk and conditions such as sleep disruption.

Like many people who are feeling lonely, you may not be able to clearly articulate your feelings and fear because you're caught up in the emotions. Loneliness can result in confusion and negative self-talk and self-judgment.

The first step to move past loneliness is self-awareness.


Loneliness may be more prevalent in North America than some may think. Cigna, a large U.S. health insurer, surveyed 20,000 Americans and reported in its 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index that 46 per cent reported that they sometimes or always feel lonely.

With Canada’s geographic space and the number of rural communities, the Canadian loneliness profile is likely similar to the U.S.

One way to get on track and take charge of your situation is to remove any sense of guilt or shame and to normalize the fact that many people are feeling lonely, and that there’s nothing wrong with you.

The good news is that there’s a way to overcome loneliness, which can boost your mental health and happiness, and enable you to improve your sleep patterns and get your productivity back to normal.


Loneliness is a feeling; it doesn’t mean a person is alone or socially isolated. What often creates the pain of loneliness are the self-defeating stories people tell themselves. One way to move past loneliness is to make a conscious decision to confront it.

Coaching Tips To Move Past Loneliness

Accept That You're A Part Of The Solution

Taking charge of your feelings requires making an action plan to move past loneliness. Like any plan, it will require motivation, focus and effort, as well as patience and persistence. If you don’t feel that you can do it yourself, it’s perfectly fine to ask a trusted friend, family member or professional to help you frame, build and implement your action plan. Overcoming loneliness requires turning off powerful emotions that are causing fear and that may not always be rational or fact-based.

Accept That Loneliness Is Subjective

When we understand that we are our own umpires—that we define when we feel lonely—we don’t need to defend our feelings. We need only to learn to accept them. Proactive steps can support a loneliness plan and a life of feeling connected: Make an effort to build new relationships; reduce time on social media and instead pick up the phone and talk to people; learn how to meditate to create more calm; re-engage or pick up a club, hobby or sport to help you get out and meet new people.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research, work force productivity at The Conference Board of Canada, and former chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell.

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