Loneliness is increasing at work (see this article) and has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the shift to more virtual working. Now, as we emerge out of Covid, is a good time for companies to put structures in place to ensure that the shifts don’t lead to a permanently disconnected, lonely workforce.
“Loneliness and mental health are closely linked and we know that it has a negative impact on health and wellbeing,” says Alison Pay, managing director, Mental Health At Work, sister organisation to the Mental Health Foundation, whose Mental Health Awareness Week theme this week is loneliness. “Any factor that has an impact on health and wellbeing should be on employer’s radar.”
Here are 12 practical pointers for tackling loneliness in your workforce:
1. Use this Mental Health Awareness week as an opportunity to start the conversation about loneliness, if you haven’t already. Some companies, for example, are running webinars or lunch-and-learns.
“If you have team check-ins, why not begin one during #MHAW22, asking each employee to suggest possible improvements to communication amongst their teams?” says Pay. “Maybe introduce discussions around how the workplace could feel more inclusive and communicative, how working practices could improve to enable a greater feeling of belonging.”
2. As this article explains, loneliness is about a lack of meaningful connection, rather than a lack of people around.
Companies can create opportunities for meaningful connection, which is when an individual feels seen and heard as themselves.
A first step is creating awareness and openness, encouraging natural, non-judgemental conversations, says Pay: “Often, a conversation alone might be enough.”
3. Use the conversation to signpost employees to relevant resources to support individuals. Employees may not want to talk about their situation but they may want to research it, once you’ve started the conversation, on their own.
It may be that you already have relevant resources available in the workplace. For example EAPs.
“But make sure the options are broad and comprehensive including helplines and resources representing the diversity of your company,” adds Pay.
4. The most important thing to remember when having a conversation about loneliness at work is to listen.
Actively listening is a skill.
“Ask questions that enable someone to speak and know that your role is not to fix,” advises Pay. “Acquiring this skill takes time, but this can be achieved if an organisation accepts this as a process of change, investing time and specialist expertise to ensure confidence is built alongside knowledge.”
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5. Realise that these types of conversations, that are connective and combat loneliness, won’t necessarily happen naturally in your workforce. It’s not as simple as getting employees in a room or on a Zoom and expecting them to happen. You will need to create the right tone, as an employer, and, probably, facilitate conversations, certainly at the beginning.
“In an ideal world, we would be able to have these conversations naturally with colleagues and managers, but there are many reason why we might find this hard,” says Pay.
Sometimes employees need a nudge from employers to open up in a more personal, emotional way at work and to understand that they won’t be judged for this. Also they may need to understand that this is the way to forge more meaningful relationships at work.
6. These conversations aren’t meant to be comfortable.
Don’t be put off if the conversation about loneliness feels uncomfortable. It’s not that the conversation feels comfortable that’s important – it’s that it’s happening.
7. There is no one size fits all when it comes to tackling loneliness and what works for one employee, may not work for another.
8. Employees can benefit greatly from hearing others’ honest experiences of loneliness, especially leaders, and what works for them. “You get to realise that you’re not alone and that feeling is just part of life,” says Teodora Chatzisarros, senior new business manager and mental health and wellbeing strategy leader, Amazon Fashion.
Chatzisarros believes when people have the feeling of loneliness they can learn how to question why they have been triggered and to “bring awareness to why they might be feeling this way”. We can, she says, learn to reprogramme ourselves so that we feel loved, accepted and like we belong.
That’s why in her workshops on loneliness at Amazon she has shared her personal tips on how she has learnt to do this for herself.
9. Create opportunities for employees to explore their passions and connect with other employees that share these passions. Tech giants are famously good at this, encouraging employees to have ‘pet projects’.
Amazon encourages its employees to do this, says Chatzisarros, which is what has enabled her to follow her interest in mental health and become a champion internally, alongside likeminded colleagues. This, she believes, has made her feel much more connected at work.
10. Recognise there’s only so much you can do as an employer. Ultimately, as with all aspects of wellbeing, employees have to take personal responsibility for their loneliness and do something about it. The best you can do is raise awareness of the issue and point to resources and inspiration.
This is certainly the view of Anglian Water’s head of wellbeing Victoria Sloan, who has commissioned Mental Health at Work to run a workshop on loneliness to mark the themed awareness week:
“We hope to get good attendance and that people come along and understand a bit more about the topic, and they come away with some useful resources. But we can’t stop someone feeling lonely. Ultimately we hope to inspire people and pique their interest and support them but ultimately they have some personal responsibility and need to take some of those first steps.”
11. Don’t make assumptions about which employees might be lonely. Research shows that being extrovert or part of a team don’t necessarily guard against loneliness. Research also shows it’s the younger generations, not the older generations, who are feeling the loneliness pinch the most.
12. With the demise of community spaces in society due to our increasingly technology-driven modern lives (think the closure of libraries, automation of check outs, etc) there is a huge opportunity for corporates to plug this gap.
Companies can create spaces and times in the collective diary where employees can come together for meaningful connection, which is the antidote to loneliness. Author and journalist Oliver Burkeman talks about the power of doing this in his bestselling book 4000 Weeks in relation to the Swedish practice of ‘fika’.
Fika is “a daily moment when everyone in a given workplace gets up from their desk to gather for coffee and cake”. As Burkeman explains, something “intangible” but “important happens”: “the usual divisions get set aside… communication and conviviality take precedence over hierarchy and bureaucracy.”
Burkeman argues that it’s the “communal time”, shared by the entire company, that makes the big difference in forging connections between employees, regardless of gender, rank, race etc. This is particularly important, given that intersectionality also appears to play a role in loneliness, too; people anecdotally report feeling more disconnected from a workforce if, for example, if they are of a different race or gender from the dominant one.