It can be a lonely workplace28.01.20
Chief People Officer
In 2017, a report from MP Jo Cox’s commission described loneliness as a ‘generational challenge’, which must be addressed by all of us – employers, individuals, governments, families and communities.
Why is this relevant to employers today? Well, on a whole host of levels – most of all, that employers can provide significant solutions to the issue. With research finding that three-in-five employees feel lonely at work, it’s clear loneliness can no longer be thought of as a ‘personal issue’ by employers. It affects your best workers and new recruits alike, every day; in turn, it affects your employee engagement and bottom line.
Start with culture
To tackle this, we need to start with our organisational culture. If we think about the people who come to work for us, the culture they walk into can make or break their day. By fostering a culture of inclusivity, of communication, of supportiveness, we can make a substantial difference to those employees who perhaps have very few people around them in their home life.
If we create a culture where people can talk openly, where people can ask for help and fail without fear, then we can begin to counterbalance isolation. If we create the reverse, we are not only failing to help solve the issue, we are actually exacerbating it.
As part of that process, we need to take into consideration the needs of our whole workforce – which includes our quieter employees. A majority of society is built around extroverts, and unsurprisingly it is typically our introverts who find it hardest to ask for help. There are also our neurodivergent employees, and individuals who may struggle with the usual social constructs. Ethnic minority groups and LGBTQ+ employees are also often left out of conversations. If we are not careful, we further isolate these individuals rather than providing them with the appropriate channels of support.
Organising social events at work can be a great way to help employees build closer networks, but we need to bear in mind the paradox that it will be some of our loneliest employees for whom the thought of socialising with a large group will seem impossible. It can also run the risk of emphasising loneliness, where, for example, you have employees who are unable to socialise outside of work because of caring responsibilities. Consider both the timing and the nature of social events you arrange. Not everyone wants to go to the pub on a Friday night after work, but by opening up a series of lunchtime clubs, you start to make these social gatherings accessible to everyone, not just those who want to or are able to socialise outside of the working day.
We also need to consider the rising trend towards increased remote working. The percentage of employees working from home some or all of the time is steadily increasing, and this seems certain to continue. Where employees are unable to build those face-to-face connections, we should consider the judicious use of technology to provide alternative forums for socialisation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that employees who work remotely need only to communicate on business matters. It is important to creating those ‘water-cooler moments’ for remote workers; to maximise opportunities for employees to speak informally and build their own social networks.
At the same time, we do need to ensure that we are not spoon-feeding people. Part of the solution to tackling loneliness is about equipping our employees with the tools to help themselves. We start by creating a culture where people are unafraid to speak out… but then it is about helping individuals to help themselves. If we are not careful, we run the risk of infantilising employees. Instead, we need to be empowering them to take control of the situation. The self-esteem boost which is gleaned from such can be a vital first step on the road to addressing the root causes and starting to build more social relationships.
Wellbeing and self-esteem
As employers, we must start to consider loneliness under the wellbeing umbrella – specifically, social wellbeing – and put in place wellbeing activities and interventions designed to boost employee self-esteem and facilitate the building of connections and relationships. Loneliness and poor mental health often go hand-in-hand. By encouraging employees to find ways of socialising they enjoy, and empowering them to prioritise their mental health (and take proactive action when this starts to deteriorate) we are able to head off loneliness before it becomes an issue.
Loneliness is often triggered by a significant life event, such as a bereavement or ill-health. Again, if we encourage a culture where employees feel able to speak openly about such matters, and where line managers can refer their team members for specialist support, we are able to intervene in the early stages to ensure that an appropriate support network is in place. The earlier we intervene, the greater the chances we can prevent that individual from becoming isolated.
An ‘epidemic of loneliness’
The ‘epidemic of loneliness’ is very real. With an estimated 1.2 million people in the UK suffering from ‘chronic loneliness’, employers need to ensure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. By prioritising building effective social networks within the workplace, ensuring wellbeing and mental health form a core part of the strategic agenda, and helping our employees to help themselves and respond to the early warning signs, we can make a real – and vital – difference.
This blog was originally published in 2016, and was updated in January 2020.
Kathryn joined Benefex in October 2014 and has overall responsibility for managing the HR function within Benefex. She has over ten years’ experience of HR management across a variety of sectors. During this time, she has not only managed HR teams but has also had responsibility for operational departments, meaning she has a great understanding of what it actually takes to get a business delivering.
Kathryn’s remit at Benefex covers a wide spectrum, from developing a recruitment strategy to bring in the very best people to deliver to our clients, to designing and delivering in house training solutions, to ensuring our company values are at the heart of everything we do. She is passionate about ensuring work becomes a great place to be for absolutely everyone, and believes that life is far too short for us to spend it dreading Monday mornings. As she’s super multi-talented, she also runs her own HR blog, Up Close and Personnel.
Kathryn’s claim to fame is that she is so bad at parking, she once drove her car into the side of her old office. We’re hoping she doesn’t go for a repeat performance here!