On 20th June, Radio 4’s Today Programme featured, in its Thought for the Day slot, a piece by the Reverend Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. I must admit, if I’m not already in the commuter maelstrom, I tend to use TftD as a time guide rather than an appointment to listen as another well-meaning faith leader asserts a role for his or her chosen deity in our increasingly secular lives. As you might have guessed, I have never been touched by faith of that kind, other than that in my fellow humans.

But last Wednesday’s broadcast was different. In an attention-grabbing introduction, Lucy dropped a bombshell (for me anyway). She cited some research, published by The Marmalade Trust, a UK charity dedicated to tackling loneliness across society, which reveals that 42% of people working in offices don’t have any friends there and are lonely at work.

This is staggering. I am now an independent consultant and do have days when talking to myself is as good as it gets but when I toiled away in an office environment I can genuinely say that I was never lonely. Stressed, pissed off, unfulfilled on occasions, sure, but also elated, appreciated and sometimes doubled up with laughter in the company of colleagues. So, what has happened in our workplaces to cause nearly half of their inhabitants to feel lonely while surrounded by lots of people, to be “alone together” in the words of Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT?

Technology is partly to blame. The habit of emailing and texting people you can see or reach by foot in a matter of seconds has replaced valuable human interaction. As is now well understood, constant connection via mobile devices can make people feel more rather than less lonely. And hefty workloads, made heavier by gigantic inboxes, have helped embed this problem.

Hot desking, that tactic of CFOs to squeeze more people into less space, has also contributed to loneliness in the workplace. Sitting in the same place week in week out was how meaningful relationships formed, resulting from regular access to each other’s lives and experiences.

Workers coming and going at different times create barriers to bonding and, when combined with the epidemic of wearing headphones at the workstation, the shutters are well and truly down.

Then, of course, there is working from home, a boon to many with family commitments and to those exercising lifestyle choices. But there is no doubt that a sterile working environment and limitations on available space (‘red hot desking’ more like) can encourage people to spend less time at the office than is desirable.

This makes sense as an explanation but is deeply troubling. Loneliness at work can trigger emotional withdrawal from the organisation paying the salary. This reduces commitment and effectiveness and is therefore bad for business. It is also terrible for inherently social beings to face isolation in a location where they spend most of their waking hours. Loneliness is bad for health, too.

What’s to be done? Much has been written about the respective responsibilities of employers and employees in this regard.

The bosses (who can also be lonely by the way) need to create cultures and endorse behaviours that champion networks, collaborative teamwork and authorised, imaginative downtime. As Amy Perrin, founder of The Marmalade Trust, urges: “It’s about encouraging a workplace of connections.”

At an individual level, just saying ‘Hi’ and removing the speakers from your ears would be a good start. More seriously, most people who are lonely and would prefer not to be can do something about it if they apply themselves. Speak up, join in, buy cake! In the words of Amy Perrin: “It’s about recognising how to interact with others again and making sure those really important points of social contact are part of our working day.”

All the above will help with loneliness at work but, having previously blogged about the underestimated potential of introverts in the workplace, I do believe that for some people these strategies are not practical and likely to be counter-productive.

For me, the remedy therefore lies with the 58% not the 42%. Those who are not lonely at work must help address the discomfort of those who are. As an example, I always remember when I worked for a French agency group. On visits to Paris I was struck by how, regardless of the pressures of the day, co-workers invite each other out for half an hour to eat a sandwich together, to chat, to share.

Isn’t that how we are hardwired to operate? We simply cannot continue down a path which sacrifices our core humanity at the altar of technology, in the mistaken belief that greater efficiency inevitably enhances effectiveness.

As with other important aspects of life, maybe the French can point us in the right direction when it comes to combatting workplace loneliness by respecting some essential human truths.