Loneliness is an emotion that affects millions of people in the UK every year and is a key driver of poor mental health. Not only is it a horrible, isolating emotional to feel, but it can also strike seemingly out of nowhere, regardless of our position in the world. Because of this, it is highly possible to feel lonely at work, either because of factors in the workplace, or externally. It can even be a blend of the two.
What is loneliness?
However, before we can tackle loneliness and help reduce it in the workplace, first we should understand what it really is. The feeling of loneliness occurs when a person perceives that they are alone or are being isolated from others. Working in a virtual, geographical or dispersed team can cause it, but similarly, working alone can also cause the emotion to occur. People can also feel lonely even in busy places such as the office, as it doesn’t discriminate and can affect anybody, regardless of age, gender and role at work.
In recent years, loneliness has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and has been an important factor contributing to higher levels of distress, resulting from people’s sense of isolation and reduced ability to connect with others. It’s also worthy to note that loneliness can be both the driver for, and a product of, poor mental health. Reducing loneliness is a major step towards a mentally healthier working environment and society as a whole.
How to spot loneliness.
Loneliness is often subjective and differs for every person, so it can be hard to identify. People who are already feeling isolated may often try to hide their feelings out of fear or embarrassment.
That being said, there are a few obvious signs to look out for:
- Spending a lot of time alone. This may include withdrawing from office banter and eating lunch away from others
- Changes in behaviour. This can be a big giveaway to whether or not something is wrong, such as the disconnected employee looking down to avoid interaction or their performance dips and there are increased absences
- Becoming unproductive. Becoming less effective at completing tasks, either on their own or within a team. A lonely person may be less invested in their work and the success of the company
- Increased negativity. This can take on the form of negative words directed towards themselves, or others and dwelling on mistakes and bad experiences
- Becoming attached to hobbies and possessions. Distraction can be a huge key factor in spotting loneliness, as well as increased consumption such as reckless spending and overeating to fill the void of human interaction
Managers should always take the time to really understand and get to know their team. Not only will this build trust, but it will also help managers be able to recognise when a member of the team is feeling disconnected. However, people who work alongside the affected employee might be more aware of their change in behaviour and be able to spot and report it quicker.
Tackling loneliness in the workplace.
One way in which workplaces can begin to tackle employee loneliness is to strive towards and cultivate a culture of connections and community. Here are some different approaches you can take:
- Educate yourself and your employees about the warning signs of loneliness (see ‘How to spot loneliness’). Conducting surveys and asking for feedback regarding workplace loneliness is an excellent way to see where employees stand mentally, and to see how much they already know about loneliness. From there, employers can analyse the data to see how connected employees feel and identify any issues that need to be addressed. Employers may opt for a counsellor to work alongside any employees that may need support
- Schedule social gatherings and team-building activities. These social events are a way for colleagues to meet each other, discuss company news and updates, and create quality friendships. A monthly lunch out or a bi-weekly virtual meet can connect co-workers both working at the office and remotely. These get-togethers, whether big or small, make employees feel included in both the company and the culture
- However, it is important to note even if an employee has admitted to feeling lonely, they might not feel comfortable sharing their problems with certain people in the workforce. This could even include their manager. This is when a third party could be introduced, such as an employee counsellor to help solve any issue and offer support, compassion and a willing ear to listen. Employing a third party to help sets a good example to the affected employee and the rest of the staff that the company they are working for deeply cares about them and values them as individuals, not just a workforce. In turn, this builds trust, and over time will make the company culture an open and safe space for employees to discuss poor mental health and other issues
- Rewarding employees and teams who have done a great job can boost their morale and add exponentially to their productivity and motivation. It also encourages them to feel more engaged in the workplace and may even become a conversation starter within the office. Rewards can be tracked easily with Breathe, an online HR system. With Breathe, you can also promote peer-to-peer recognition and give praise, manage appraisals, increase communication channels, set one-to-one meetings and manage objectives
- It is critical to remember virtual colleagues, as remote team members are particularly susceptible to loneliness, so both managers and employees should reach out to them regularly. Sending an email or text after a conference call is fine, but picking up the phone to have a chat with a remote team member is more personal, and it will reassure them that they matter
Loneliness is an emotional response to feeling isolated and can affect anybody of any gender, age and status. Unfortunately, it is an issue which is widespread and continues to grow. It’s important to tackle loneliness in the workplace by creating a friendly culture and open community. If you need help in cultivating this type of community within your workforce, please contact us firstname.lastname@example.org at or give us a call today on 01844 216290. We also offer a free 30-minute consultation.
SYLO | Beyond HR.