Combatting employee loneliness through employee recognition20.05.21
Chief Innovation Officer
Almost three years ago, Benefex began writing about the growing importance of community and social wellbeing at work. Before the Covid-19 pandemic forcibly separated us from our colleagues and community an even more important part of the employee experience, workplace loneliness was at worryingly high levels. More than half of employees say they feel lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’, with almost half saying they don’t have a friend at work.
The more connected we feel to other people, the better our overall health. Strong social connections are what make up community wellbeing (also known as social wellbeing) and now, more than ever, it’s time that employers start to build more of a commitment to creating supportive, trusting communities.
Coronavirus has prompted Government intervention
Following the recognition that employers have a unique opportunity to better support the wellbeing of society, in May 2021, the UK Government published new guidance for employers about tackling the growing issue of loneliness in society. In a cross-government strategy involving the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Campaign to End Loneliness, the ‘Loneliness Employers Leadership Group’ (LELG) was established. This working group has identified several actions for employers to better support loneliness at work. Two of these recommendations have a strong base in employee recognition schemes.
- Culture and infrastructure: Identifying what really matters to employees and aligning with corporate values. Factoring loneliness into other wellbeing and welfare activities.
- People and networks: Considering how people have positively used networks to tackle loneliness including whilst working remotely.
The UK Government believes that the very features of the workplace can trigger or exacerbate feelings of loneliness. The working LELG group has made it very clear that they think employers should be using their values to instil a sense of belonging in their people to encourage the development of community at work – especially as more employees work remotely and flexibly. A primary recommendation is to create a culture that promotes meaningful connection between employees – something we know employee recognition schemes can have a significant impact on.
The growing importance of community at work
Our community wellbeing relies heavily on the quality of social support we get from our colleagues that help us to feel like we belong. Our emotional attachment to work is driven by how far we feel we can participate, and if we feel like we have a voice and opinions that are listened to. A strong sense of community at work can be cultivated with a wider commitment to offering the tools which enable employees to experience positive, regular interactions with each other.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows when most or all the elements of community wellbeing come together in a positive way, the impact on the individual and the organisation is significant. Some studies have found that when community wellbeing is high, employees report less conflict between their home and work lives. We also have evidence that community wellbeing directly correlates with life satisfaction and employee mental health.
Humans are made to be social. We aren’t designed to be on our own. In fact, we strive for connection with other people so much that loneliness is now a strong predictor of premature death. A study that looked at 13,000 patients with heart conditions found that when they had poor social connections, their conditions were exacerbated. Scoring low on factors like size of social network and perception of support carries a similar risk to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to one study.
When people feel more connected to their employer’s values, purpose, and their colleagues, at its extreme – these feelings lead to lower mortality rates. We’ve known for some time that loneliness can exacerbate ill health, but we now also know that having a community of people around us at work, who we feel care and appreciate us, and that we can interact with regularly in a positive way, can have a huge effect on our wellbeing and feelings of loneliness.
Recognition is no longer nice to have, it is a core element of wellbeing
A lack of positive, social interaction is harming employee mental health. A study of 20,000 American employees found that only half have meaningful personal interactions with people on a daily basis. Research has found a lack of recognition at work is a predictor of higher levels of loneliness, and we know that being acknowledged is one of our very basic human needs. With a lack of recognition, we are experiencing fewer of those moments that connect us to other people.
Recognising the efforts of your colleagues brings you closer to them. When we get thanked by our colleagues, the same part of the brain gets activated as if we have been given money. The ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex are reward centres in the brain which are activated when we get thanked or receive compliments. But it’s not just recognition that improves our wellbeing. Research from Mendoza and Schultz has shown that the reward centre in the brain lights up when just observing someone being thanked. Seeing someone else receive recognition has a positive effect on all who witness it.
Now more than ever, we need ways to encourage employers to support the development of social capital at work. As we are settling into a new hybrid way of working, it’s never been more important to see the pivotal role recognition plays in the employee wellbeing and the employee experience – and with the forming of the LELG, the UK Government has just started to agree.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it was just how much we need small, regular, and positive interactions with other people. It’s time for employers to take the baton from the Government, bring back more of these moments of positive exchange, and start to encourage employees to recognise and thank each other more often. Not just for our people’s success, but our organisations’ too.
The psychology of recognition
Take a look inside our research-packed report to help your employees’ wellbeing and cultivate a sense of community.
Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience and wellbeing for more than two decades. The last 11 years have been spent working as part of the senior leadership team at Benefex where Gethin leads thought leadership as Chief Innovation Officer.
As a frequent writer and speaker on employee experience and employee wellbeing, Gethin has been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Sun, The Huffington Post and The Financial Times as well as all major HR, Reward and Pensions publications. Gethin has been listed as one of the world’s top 101 Global Employee Experience Influencers for the last two years running, is listed on the Employee Engagement Powerlist, is one of LinkedIn’s top global contributors and an Inspiring Leader 2021. Gethin is also a regular keynote speaker, ex-Chair of Wellbeing at the UK Government-backed Engage for Success and a Fellow at the RSA.
In 2018, Gethin published his first book - the HR bestseller ‘A World of Good: Lessons From Around the World in Improving the Employee Experience’, which has gone on to inspire HR and Reward teams at some of the world’s best known brands. In early 2022, Gethin co-authored his second book ‘Das Menschliche Büro - The Human(e) Office’ a collaboration between leading academics and workplace professionals from across Europe. In October 2022, Gethin published his “third” book ‘A Work In Progress: Unlocking Wellbeing to Create More Sustainable and Resilient Organisations’ which also became an immediate bestseller.