Why It’s So Lonely at the Top

Work friendships are crucial to happiness. What happens when you can’t make them?

A man in a suit sits in a tall chair above clouds and a crowd of smiley faces.
Jan Buchczik

How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

This is the most famous line in William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2, spoken by the titular 15th-century English king. He is tired, sick, sad, and alone in his misery. His remark expresses the persistent idea that leaders tend to be isolated and lonely.

Modern research supports this claim. It’s not that leaders are more likely than others to say they are lonely people in general, but isolation and loneliness at work are a special source of unhappiness for people at the top.

Friendship at work is crucial to happiness for most people. Among employees and managers studied by the human-resource advisory firm Future Workplace and the workplace-wellness company Virgin Pulse, more than 90 percent said they have friends from work, 70 percent said friendship at work is the most important element to a happy work life, and 58 percent said they would turn down a higher-paying job if it meant not getting along with co-workers. According to a proprietary data analysis by Gallup conducted this month, employees who say they have a “best friend” at work are almost twice as likely as others to enjoy their workday, and almost 50 percent more likely to report high social well-being.

But people at the top often miss out on workplace friendships, and they may suffer mightily as a result. According to one finding in the Harvard Business Review, for example, half of CEOs experience loneliness on the job, and most of them feel loneliness hinders their work performance. Studies also have shown that loneliness is linked to burnout among leaders.

Professionally successful people—and those climbing the ladder to leadership—need to know how to manage this problem.

Loneliness at the top doesn’t come from physical isolation—who spends more time in meetings than a CEO?—but from an inability to make deep human connections at work as a result of the leader’s position. At work, successful people are “lonely in a crowd.”

One reason for this is that leaders are aware, on some level, that many of their subordinates—no matter how they act—don’t much enjoy being with them. Consider the famous 2004 study in which the Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked working women to describe how they felt about the moments in their previous day, from the joyful to the stressful.

The positive side of the ledger yielded few surprises: People were happiest while having sex, socializing, and relaxing, and most enjoyed the time spent with their friends, relatives, and spouses. The activities that produced the most negative feelings were working, child care (sorry, kids), and commuting. The second- and third-most-negative interaction partners were clients and co-workers. And the No. 1 spot for negative interactions? The boss. The lonely boss.

The nature of the boss-employee relationship often makes it hard for either side to connect with the other on a purely human-to-human level. One study from 1972 found that bosses believe subordinates in a workplace lose their sense of free will about being pleasant with the person at the top—you are unfriendly to the boss at your peril—which makes things uncomfortable and awkward. More recent research has shown that subordinates might want to shun friendship with a boss because, paradoxically, it can actually result in bias against the employee. And one study found that people often treat their professional superiors the way they treated authority figures from earlier in their lives, such as parents or teachers.

People with authority isolate themselves, as well. The sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, along with the poet Reuel Denney, famously claimed in their 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd, that leaders are lonely because their success requires the manipulation and persuasion of others. As such, they objectify subordinates every bit as much as subordinates objectify them. Later research found that leaders often purposely distance themselves from employees so they can appraise their performance fairly.

Although the data show that people at the top aren’t more likely than others to be lonely outside of work on average, I have met plenty of successful people who are isolated and lonely in all parts of their lives.

Some of this has to do with the sheer number of hours spent at work. According to the Harvard Business Review, the average American CEO works 62.5 hours a week, versus 44 hours by the average worker. That rings true to me: I doubt I ever worked less than a 60-hour week in the entire decade that I was the chief executive of a Washington, D.C., think tank. Many leaders work much more than this, leaving little time to cultivate outside relationships.

Lonely leaders who work crushing hours often tell me they have no choice if they want to succeed. I don’t buy it. When I dig a little, I usually find symptoms of a common disease among successful people: workaholism.

This term was coined by the psychologist Wayne Oates after his young son asked for an appointment at Oates’s office to see him, so scarce was his father’s time. Oates defined workaholism in 1971 as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” You might think of the condition as a first cousin of “success addiction,” about which I wrote a few weeks back.

Since Oates introduced the concept, workaholism has gotten a lot of attention from psychologists, who believe that it is a real and rising problem in American life. Generally speaking, it can be diagnosed by asking questions such as whether someone works far beyond what is required and, in so doing, neglects other parts of their life. In my experience, workaholics also exhibit more classic addictive behavior, such as sneaking around to do work and feeling threatened or angry when loved ones suggest they should work less. (By the way, I’m feeling a bit angry and defensive as I write these paragraphs.)

Why do people behave this way? The psychologist Barbara Killinger argued that workaholics tend to be perfectionists and possess an unhealthy fear of failure. Achieving more and more gives them momentary relief from that fear, but then it’s always back to work, because the idea of falling behind generates a sense of panic.

Wrapped up in their fear and obsession, workaholics—like all people controlled by their addictive behavior—leave little room in their lives for friends, family, and even God. As the late John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the study of loneliness, put it, “Loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships.” So even though they may be in a family or a crowded workplace, workaholics feel all alone, except for their terrible, beloved work.

Some of the factors that contribute to leaders’ loneliness are unavoidable. Bosses cannot help but be somewhat isolated from their employees; that’s the nature of being the boss. But there are things leaders can do to make life at the top less lonely—and those strategies can help people still climbing the ladder, as well. (In fact, it is better to make changes to your attitude toward work early, before it’s too late.)

Solving the workaholism problem requires complete honesty. Workaholic leaders lie to themselves all the time. They convince themselves that that 14th hour of work is vital to their success, when, in reality, their productivity is likely severely diminished by that point, and what they’re really doing is blocking out the dullness, pressures, or pain of ordinary life for one more hour. This is a hard problem, but it will never be solved without admitting that there is a problem in the first place.

Acknowledging this truth also requires facing what the workaholic is avoiding with the extra hour. If it is dysfunctional relationships—possibly brought on by years of neglect—it will only get worse by indulging the addiction. It is worth remembering that the cliché image of an old man on his deathbed saying to his family, “I wish I’d spent more time at work,” is meant ironically. To escape his addiction, the workaholic has to reapportion time and use it to reestablish friendships and family life.

Those who are lonely only at work should note that happy leaders don’t leave friendship up to chance. Take the case of Ben Franklin. In 1727, he founded what he called the “Junto Club,” an informal group of men, most of whom were more or less at his level of responsibility and standing in Philadelphia. The club provided Franklin an outlet where he could develop real friendships, speak freely, seek advice, and develop ideas. He had stumbled across one of the secrets to success without loneliness: building your own intimate community outside of work. Some people do this through golf; others through Bible study. But it doesn’t matter what activity you do, or what form your friendships take—what matters is creating an ecosystem where you can spend time with others and be seen as a person, not as your title.

Anyone can benefit from creating opportunities to socialize outside the office, but leaders often need these intentional friendships particularly acutely. These days, such clubs don’t have to be even geographically circumscribed. My own little Junto has members as far away as Atlanta, San Francisco, and Milan—but we’re all as close as a tap on an app.

It can indeed be lonely at the top. But loneliness is not a necessary condition of success, any more than unpaid taxes are a condition of making a lot of money. It is just a cost one must face honestly, and manage.

And, unlike taxes, loneliness can be defeated. Furthermore, the management and remediation of loneliness—to seek and give love—is its own reward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his joyful essay “Friendship,” “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” With knowledge and effort, those happy sentiments are available to all of us.