What it’s like to feel like an outsider at work

Written by Leah Sinclair

Feeling a part of a team is integral to our work life, so when we experience bouts of loneliness it can drastically impact our careers and the way we view ourselves.

When we apply for jobs, there are a few things we tend to prioritise – our salaries, room for career progression and how many days of annual leave we get.

But one of the most important things – and one that we rarely ask about – is the workplace culture and the idea of forming relationships with our colleagues.

After all, the people we work with tend to be the ones we see and socialise with the most, and when those relationships aren’t formed it can have a massive impact on our job satisfaction and how we view ourselves.

In fact, a 2018 study from California State University and the University of Pennsylvania found that feeling disconnected and lonely at work is bad for workplace performance, highlighting just how difficult it can be to feel ostracised from your colleagues and like a work outsider.

“For me, being a work outsider was a feeling that I didn’t really fit in with or have very much in common with many of my colleagues”, says Bryony Lewis, an entrepreneur and founder of T & Belle from Fareham. “At times, conversations felt awkward and forced and centred mainly around necessary discussions about what we were working on.”

Lewis previously worked in web development and found that in her previous role, she struggled to forge relationships with colleagues within her department, which at times, left her feeling left out.

“I would sometimes be part of a group of employees but often wouldn’t contribute to the conversation as I felt that I had nothing to add or knew nothing about the topic,” she says.

“My life was very different to theirs, and if I was talking one to one with someone, it often felt forced or like they didn’t really want to speak to me. I would often choose to eat lunch at my desk rather than feel awkward in the group. I often felt lonely despite being in an office filled with people.”

This was amplified by the industry Lewis worked in, which was particularly male-dominated and contributed to the sense of loneliness she’d sometimes felt – something many women can relate to.

“Because of the nature of my work in web development, it was generally a male-dominated workplace and conversation often centred around sports or fitness activities, which I knew very little about,” she shares.

“Whole department social events were usually in the evenings after work, which meant that I couldn’t attend because I had parenting responsibilities and office discussions in the days that followed often focused on these events, which further distanced me from other employees.”

This sense of isolation experienced as one of few women in a male-dominated workplace is something Abigail Hall, a construction consultant and founder of the podcast Design & Build Happiness, can also relate to.

“I remember once being in the far corner of a site office with approximately 20 desks between me and the entrance door.A delivery driver came in and couldn’t see the receptionist, so looked around for someone else to help,” she recalls.

“The driver walked past 20 desks with 20 different men working at them to get to me and ask what to do with the stationery delivery.The driver asked me because I was the only woman they could see.”

While Hall says her male co-workers quickly corrected the delivery driver, it was an experience that reminded her how much she wasn’t immersed in the culture and stood out because of her gender.

“On a building site of men either in grey suits or building site PPE, I look – and was – a real outsider. I don’t look or sound like anyone I’m in the [work] room with due to the way I dress, from the bold colour choices to the accessories I wear, and because I am a woman.

“The feeling of being an outsider has affected my behaviour in the past. I started to act like an outsider and this delayed the building of a relationship with my colleagues.”

Hall says that over time, she realised she had to choose either to conform in order to feel ‘part’ of something or be true to herself.

“I had to either imitate my colleagues and dampen down the aesthetic to ‘blend in more’ or own who I am and let people see that just because I look and sound different doesn’t mean I don’t know or care about the profession.I have learned to opt for option two each and every time.”

Frances Barrett, the founder of social media management company The Social Brain, agrees.

“I was a customer service manager at a fashion company, and I was quite shy,” she says. “I would see cliques between people within the office while I was on the sidelines, watching from afar, which made me feel like an outsider.

“Fortunately, I was working on my side hustle at the time, which is now my own company. When that became sustainable, I ended up handing in my notice and working for myself full-time,” Barrett reveals.

“But even prior to that, I managed to find some common ground with my line manager, but otherwise it was challenging.”

Working for a fashion company despite not being into fashion proved tricky for Barrett who found the cliquey nature difficult to deal with and forge worthwhile relationships.

But as she pointedly notes, feeling like a work outsider doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of you as an individual – and maybe the people you’ll connect and collaborate with the best could be elsewhere.

“If your people aren’t in your workspace, there is a workspace with your people in it,” Barrett shares.

“For those struggling with deciding whether to leave a role because the work environment and culture don’t work for you shouldn’t be made to feel like that is a frivolous decision. Who your work with is important to your daily life, and it’s totally worth being brave, making the jump and finding your people.”

Image: Getty

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