The longest lunch hour: how to fight loneliness at work

Contract work can be a strange beast. You might avoid the sort of work from home jobs that are bread and butter for a lot of contractors precisely because solo working leaves you feeling lonely and, over time, adversely affects your mental health. 

The people you work with change so frequently that it can be difficult to form relationships, let alone make office friends. This sort of loneliness within a crowd can lead to even the most socially able contractors feeling isolated at work.

The fact that this is a common occurrence makes it no easier. Every contractor has a similar story: 1pm rolls around and there’s a flurry of discussion amongst your coworkers about where’s the best place to eat, whether they’re doing Taco Tuesday or not and whether their boss’s meeting means they can sneak ten extra minutes…everybody leaves, laughing and joking.

And you’re still there.

Alone at your desk, ready for another lunch hour spent in perfect silence.

If you’re the kind of person who needs to be around people and feel part of a community, the temporary nature of contracting can be disarming, even if you do spend most of your time in other people’s offices.

But you can use your natural charisma and curiosity as a way of making connections. Here are some useful ideas to beat office isolation:

1) Know it’s not about you (really)

The first thing to realise is that even if you are the most funny, delightful and generally lovable individual, the lone lunch hour will almost certainly take hold of you at some point. This is the nature of contract work and it’s important not to take it personally.

Sometimes people connect slower than we’d like. After all, we’re tribal creatures and it always takes time for a group to adjust to a new member. Sometimes you just aren’t given enough time to bond with everyone, or even anyone. And that’s okay.

2) Take the initiative

Yes, that means invite yourself along. If your co-workers go out in a big group, it’s likely that you’ll be able to join the throng without too much stress.

If you feel that the group dynamics might make this weird, maybe it’s about taking a look at the company culture and identifying how your coworkers bond. Is it after work drinks? Kitchen gossip? Friday afternoon quizzes? Identify the social opportunities and get in there. If it all goes horribly wrong then you’ll be out of there in a few weeks.

3) Build a portable community

Instead of focusing on how to connect with people at work, take some time and reconnect with the people that already love you. Of course you’ll be busy at work, but everybody takes downtime to chat and get a cup of coffee.

If you have other contractor friends, setting up a 5 minute Google Hangout where you can check in and ask about each other’s day can be really restorative. The added bonus is that freelancers and contractors know exactly what the rhythm of work is like, so if you don’t reply for two hours, nobody’s going to be offended.

There are also plenty of freelance chat rooms available on Slack, like Digital Freelancers and even sites like YunoJuno operate their own ‘watercooler’ Slack channel.

4)  Plan lunchtime expeditions

If you’re working in  a big city then you’ve got a lot more options than you think. There are often activities and events geared specifically for people on their lunch hour: think yoga, 45 minute theatre productions and mini-talks. Start Googling the major cultural buildings in your area and visit any nearby co-working space’s website. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

These are just a few ideas to help you navigate this difficult terrain. It can be tough, but you’ll break through. At the very least you’ll have most happening Google Hangout around.