Mental health issues will affect one in four people at some point in their lives, and have a significant impact on employee wellbeing. Between 3rd April and 3rd May 2020, in the midst of the first pandemic lockdown with many workers unexpectedly finding themselves working from home, 2.6 million adults in the UK reported that they “often” or “always” felt lonely.
The pandemic has demonstrated just how much friendships and connection mean to us. As well as being a deeply corrosive experience in itself, chronic loneliness affects our mental and physical health and even mortality. Tackling loneliness is complex, and needs a response from all parts of society. Lockdown meant no socialising with others in person, and while this might have come as a relief to some, to others it resulted in increased feelings of loneliness. Even before coronavirus, the mental and emotional toll of loneliness within our society was a growing worry for employers and the Government. Now, with millions of us having been forced to self-isolate, keep ‘socially distant’ and work from home, it is an even more pressing challenge.
What is it?
Workplace isolation can be defined as a perceived absence of support from co-workers and Supervisors, and lack of opportunities for social and emotional interactions with the team. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want. When defined like this, it becomes easy to see how workplace isolation can contribute to feelings of loneliness, particularly for those who need a greater amount of social and emotional interaction than others. Loneliness is experienced across all ages.
Some of these issues create a vicious circle. For instance, poor health/disability meaning a person cannot work and is stuck at home, can increase people’s risk of being lonely, which then leads to their health worsening, impacting their employment prospects and exacerbating feelings of loneliness.
Social wellbeing encapsulates the power of bringing people together at work to improve their health and wellbeing, through better relationships and support networks, building on the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The concept of “social wellbeing” deserves a place alongside mental, physical and financial wellbeing strategies that are now commonplace in progressive workplaces, but in the UK, we have some way yet to go. For instance, a study by Relate found that 42% of people surveyed didn’t have any colleagues they would see as a close friend.
Why it matters
By tackling loneliness and supporting employees to build social connections, employers can ensure a more productive and resilient workforce. Workplaces where employees have a strong sense of organisational identity are more able to withstand the effects of recession and maintain performance.
Over the last 20 years, the number of people living on their own has increased by 20% and today, 48% of us believe that people are getting lonelier in general despite being so closely connected by technology. We have never been so well connected as a society as we are now, through tools like video conferencing and social media, but despite this connection, we’ve also never been more isolated.
Although we are all susceptible, evidence indicates that some of us are more likely to suffer the negative implications of workplace isolation than others. We can be alone and not feel lonely, and inversely we can feel lonely even when in a relationship or surrounded by others.
Loneliness is a subjective – and often painful – feeling that has more to do with the quality of our relationships and social interactions than the quantity. Researchers have been studying the effects of loneliness for decades, but it hasn’t been examined in the context of the workplace until recently.
Why it matters at work
Employers have a role to play in supporting the wellbeing of their employees and reducing loneliness. Our social connections at work – with peers, Managers and customers/service users – are one of the biggest overall drivers of job satisfaction. Good quality, meaningful connections are associated with better outcomes in terms of quality of work, better wellbeing and greater engagement in work.
The negative implications of workplace isolation can lead to decreased job performance, and negative work-related wellbeing, loneliness, and a decrease in emotional and psychological wellbeing. All of which can have negative organisational consequences, such as absenteeism, increased rate of turnover and an adverse impact on company culture
Persistent loneliness can increase the risk of developing serious health issues. It is linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and dementia. It increases stress hormones impacting our immune function. It is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and worse than obesity, increasing the risk of premature death by 29%.
It can negatively impact mental health playing a role in mental disorders such as anxiety, paranoia and depression. More than a third of us (42%) have felt depressed because we felt alone. It can increase our chances of indulging in risky habits such as drug-taking, and is also a known risk factor in suicide.
When loneliness strikes at work, it becomes as much a business issue as a health issue. Loneliness often results in an emotional withdrawal from the organisation. Lonely people tend to be less committed, creative, collaborative and attentive, and both the quality and the quantity of their work can deteriorate. It has also been identified as a factor in workplace burnout.
How to recognise loneliness
Loneliness is a subjective experience, so there are no “hard and fast” rules about what it looks like. Many people may also hide their feelings for fear of embarrassment, or because they don’t want to appear weak, and this can make loneliness difficult to identify. Conversely, others might seek more physical contact through handshakes or hugs, and seize opportunities to talk. So, don’t be misled by apparent extroversion.
The best approach for Managers is to take the time to get to know and really understand your people. This will help you to recognise when someone is feeling disconnected, or left out by the rest of team. Watch for changes in behaviour and body language too. If they start looking “down,” avoiding interaction, or their performance suddenly dips, then there’s a potential sign.
Listen to other team members’ concerns, too – they might be more aware of their colleagues’ feelings than you are.
What employers can do – generally
Address it from the top, by looking at culture and infrastructure. There are a wide range of actions which employers can take to enhance social wellbeing, and tackle loneliness in the workplace:
- Raise awareness of loneliness and help to overcome the stigma. If you have in-house HR and/or safety, ask them to put this on their agenda.
- Communicate any suitable employer benefits, e.g. employee assistance programmes (EAP). Put in place support structures, such as mental health first aiders to spot the signs of loneliness, and on how to sensitively approach lonely employees. Signpost people to external support services, e.g. relevant charities. All of these encourage employees to use which give employees the opportunity to talk to someone confidentially about how they feel.
- Support and encourage Line Managers to act, such as training to spot the signs and symptoms of loneliness, and on how to sensitively approach and signpost employees who may feel lonely.
- Encourage employees to broaden their work network, reaching out to colleagues in other teams whom they may not work with day-to-day.
- Review the support provided to employees during key life transition points (for example caring for a dying loved one, bereavement, parenthood, or an impending retirement).
- Encourage flexible working (wherever possible), enabling employees to socialise whilst juggling responsibilities at home. Conversely but importantly, allow flexibility for employees to work from the office if they prefer, as being forced to work from home can be isolating. Create opportunities to regularly bring people together, and invest in technology such as video conferencing.
- Encourage positive relationships at work, making sure people have enough breathing space to have a reasonable level of informal conversations with their colleagues during the working day.
- Measure work-related stress and make a concerted effort to reduce it. Stress at work can cause friction, strain on relationships, lower levels of teamwork and cooperation – all of which can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
- Offer training on issues that improve relationships, such as conflict resolution, listening skills, teamwork, emotional intelligence, inclusion, and mindfulness.
- Consider a diversity & inclusion strategy to check you are meeting the needs of minority groups and using opportunities, e.g. networking, to reduce loneliness.
There are many actions which Line Managers (and HR) should be doing to help employees who may be “suffering in silence.” Some of these actions are dependent on senior approval, but not all.
- Communicate with employees by having regular check ins, and asking employees how they feel. Managers or team members are probably most likely to identify if someone could be lonely, perhaps through things that they say in day-to-day conversation. As loneliness may not be easily to identify, it is important that Managers are checking in with employees regularly. A simple ‘how are you?’ can give employees the space to share and raise any issues that they are experiencing. Try starting internal meetings with wellbeing check-ins, or casual updates on people’s day. Remember that employees may feel shy or embarrassed mentioning that they’re having a tough time, so be ready for a one-to -one. That’s why a compassionate approach is so important.
- Create opportunities for employees to connect or reconnect with others, even if they can’t see each other in person. That can mean organising social activities after work. If working remotely, online quizzes, team calls and even group exercise classes can, as a result, help employees socialise with each other from home. Remember to ask employees if they want to participate in online social activities, and what they would like to do. Avoid relying solely on one form of social activity here – we can all sympathise with suffering from Zoom fatigue. Mixing things up and trying new approaches should increase levels of engagement.
- Take particular care with new employees. Make them welcome and monitor them, particularly if they work from home. Some new recruits are able to seamlessly work remotely, whilst others struggle, despite the job role and level of organisational support on offer being similar to what they were used to.
- Do team-building right. Whether in or out of the office, it can be rewarding and doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. Build a team that has a shared direction. Purpose gives meaning to people’s efforts, and a shared purpose builds camaraderie. So, counter the energy-sapping effects of loneliness by getting your team engaged in the wider impact of its work. At the same time, keep a lookout for negative behaviours, such as rudeness, bullying or harassment, that risk damaging team spirit, and deal with these effectively. Be clear with your team about the types of behaviours that you would like to see, and work with individuals on any interpersonal skills that they need to develop. Aim to build a team that has shared values. This will help to avoid conflict and seclusion.
- Deal with issues. If you suspect that one of your people is lonely or isolated, work on building up their trust. When people feel like you really care, and that their voice matters, it’s easier to open up. Simple gestures make a difference.
- Encourage good relationships. You can’t force people to become friends. But you can encourage them to form bonds, by creating opportunities for collaboration.
- Remember the little things. The smallest gestures can make the world of difference. Things like making someone a coffee, or just remembering to say “hello” in the morning will show them that you care, and that their wellbeing matters to you. Random acts of kindness like these will likely have a positive knock-on effect on the rest of your team, too. Avoid inadvertently excluding someone just because you don’t relate to them as well as you do with other people on your team. Leaving someone out of the lunchtime chat, for example, can be very hurtful – and may even damage their career, particularly if you use this time to talk about work or new opportunities.
- Tackle exhaustion. Apart from all the other health and safety risks; the more exhausted someone is, the lonelier they can feel. Take care that your team members avoid exhaustion. Encourage them to work regular and sensible hours, to take proper breaks, and to agree clear boundaries that protect their work-life balance. And be sure to follow your own advice!
- Remember virtual colleagues. Remote team members are particularly susceptible to loneliness, so be sure to reach out to them regularly. Save a few minutes at the end of conference calls or video chats to catch up with them, and to ask them how they’re doing. Do not be afraid to break away from tech-based forms of communication occasionally. Email and messaging apps are great when you want to save time, but picking up the phone to have a chat with a remote team member is far more personal, spontaneous and should reassure them that they matter.
- Look after yourself. Managers are not super-human and can also feel lonely, especially if they focus on work to the exclusion of their own relationships and mental health.
Loneliness is a painful emotional response to feeling isolated.
Now that more of us are working from home, we need to be creative about how we can boost our sense of connectedness from afar – to ensure both our wellbeing and our ability to stay productive and engaged at work.
Our Consultants would be pleased to advise you on any element of the issues arising from this newsletter.