MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Forcing Employees Back to the Office, or Into Social Situations, Won’t Magically Fix the Loneliness Crisis

Given the soaring stats on how lonely we are as a nation, it’s no wonder that this is the theme that the Mental Health Foundation has chosen to focus its awareness campaign on this week (see box out for stats).

But loneliness is shrouded in myth, misinformation and stigma – which is why this themed week offers companies a valuable opportunity to open the conversation on this tricky topic.

“The workplace has an important role to play in encouraging discussion to help remove some of the stigma,” says Alison Pay, managing director, at the Mental Health Foundation’s sister organisation, Mental Health At Work. “Being alone, loneliness and social isolation are not the same and neither is loneliness caused by a lack of social skills or the number of friends that we have.”

As we come out of the pandemic there’s a temptation for companies to think that ‘it’ll all be fine’ as we return to a new normal of hybrid working. Or for others to think that forcing employees back into the office will naturally sort the problem out and it will go away. It won’t.

Loneliness is a complex issue, increasing pre-pandemic

Making assumptions like these is to fundamentally misunderstand the depth of the issue, the wider societal trends at play and what actually causes loneliness.

Loneliness is not caused by being alone.

“Loneliness is a really taboo subject,” says Petra Velzeboer, CEO and Founder of mental health consultancy PVL, who is currently running workshops for companies which touch on loneliness for brands like Raconteur.

“I don’t think people know what the hell to do with the theme of loneliness at work. That’s why I talk about it. I was in a 13 year marriage and most of it, I was incredibly lonely. You can be lonely in a crowd. You can be lonely in a family at home.”

Loneliness is often misunderstood

Loneliness is more about a feeling of disconnection than about whether a person is physically with someone else.

Teodora Chatzisarros, senior new business manager and mental health and wellbeing strategy leader, Amazon Fashion, defines it brilliantly as:

“Loneliness is a feeling, created by a set of thoughts, that are fed by illusions in the subconscious. Like ‘I am not accepted’. The feeling creates the emotion. In this case, likely of sadness. Loneliness reveals the need to belong (to a group, community) and the need to connect…. in a meaningful way, when we feel seen, heard, held. And not just when we are in the presence of someone.”

As Velzeboer says, loneliness is a “subjective” experience, which will vary from employee to employee.

Society is increasingly being designed for disconnection

What is not subjective, however, is the fact that society is increasingly being designed around human disconnection, rather than connection.

Opportunities for connection, interaction with other humans and a sense of community, are crumbling around us as we hurtle towards a more technologically-facilitated life.

We read books online rather than go to our local library (if it’s even still open).

We scan our own items in the supermarket rather than have an impromptu chat to the check out assistant.

We do our yoga class online rather than in the gym.

We are being starved of crucial human connection, for which we are wired, and it’s making our collective spirits wither. In short: it’s making your employees ill.

What can companies do about the loneliness crisis?

So, what does this have to do with you, as someone concerned about employee wellbeing? And what positive role can corporations play in turning this disconnected tide?

Lots, as it happens.

There’s a real opportunity for companies to be a pivotal part of clawing back some moments of connection which can combat loneliness.

The key is, as Chatzisarros identifies, engineering situations at work where employees don’t just connect but they connect “meaningfully”, which means in a way in which they feel seen and heard. Basically, in a way in which they can be themselves.

But, again, there’s a danger of jumping to the assumption that a “meaningful” connection has to be a “deep” connection. It doesn’t.

Employees need meaningful connections at work

“You can have meaningful connections with all different kinds of people. With your manager. Or others you interact with at work,” explains Chatzisarros, who could have added ‘check out assistant’ or ‘librarian’ to that list, too.

“A meaningful connection is when you openly share and the other person meets you there and you don’t feel resistance. You feel listened to and accepted as you are.”

Of course, this connection is different from, say, your best friend who knows you on another level entirely. But that craving for ‘real’ ‘meaningful’ connection – the antidote to loneliness – can be satisfied by our work colleagues, as much as our friends.

There’s even research showing that strangers can positively impact your mental health, which is why one of the chapters in Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s new book on ‘Happy Mind, Happy Life’ is entitled ‘Talk to strangers’.

It’s not a case of merely putting people in a room or on Zoom

“Your connection with your manager doesn’t have to be deep to be meaningful,” says Chatzisarros.

The challenge for companies is how do they create spaces where employees – from different backgrounds, functions, levels – can meaningfully connect? It’s not a simple case of thinking ‘we’ll get everyone together in a room with a few drinks’ or ‘we’ll do weekly Zoom check-in calls to ask everyone how they are’.

Employers have to create safe psychological spaces, setting the tone where people feel they can be themselves. This is much harder than it sounds. The added challenge is that employees have got used to bypassing human connection, in favour of convenience, via technology and have even got comfortable doing this.

The art, and joy, of connection is being lost. That’s why some firms are even bringing in experts to help their employees, especially the younger ones, know how to talk in person to their colleagues.

Employers can be a force for good

Employers can be a force for good in helping people re-learn this important skill which ultimately benefits their health. And not only their health, research also shows, says Robin Hewings, programme director, Campaign to End Loneliness, that lonely employees are less likely to help their colleagues; ergo connected colleagues are.

Anglian Water is ahead of the game in realising the massive importance of a connected workforce. That’s why it’s using this themed loneliness week to create a conversation, with Mental Health At Work running a workshop.

But, rather than focusing on the health dangers of loneliness, Victoria Sloan, head of wellbeing at Anglian Water, believes the most effective strategy is to promote the benefits of connection – not just to health – but to careers.

Companies can create connection in design and in diaries

“We are encouraging people to come into the office and selling the benefits of it. We’ve been training our people that host events in the benefits of human connection,” she says. “We’ve been talking about things like how being in person, being actually in front of leaders, can positively impact your career, particularly for women, for whom the gender pay gap is an issue.”

Sloan has also been “making our office more about connection”. There are now more collaboration spaces, more informal seating like couches and small booths for private conversations. Rather than having a specific desk, employees now do “neighbourhood working” and hot desking.

“Loneliness has hit many people throughout the pandemic, so we really want to raise awareness of the benefits of human connection and supporting our colleagues right across Anglian Water,” she says.

Loneliness isn’t a quick fix

Of course, technology is going to continue to develop apace. Products and services will continue to gravitate online because it’s easier, cheaper and more convenient. But, at the same time as reaping these benefits, employers need to be thinking about how they can design connection back into their environment and diary.

They also need to cut their employees some slack in the time it might take to get comfortable, and competent, with connection again. People have been through a hugely disconnecting, disorientating, scary experience – the pandemic – which for many has been traumatic.

This is especially true for young people, for whom Covid has robbed vital personal development and key life experiences, which could explain why they are the group reporting the highest levels of loneliness: nearly 9 in 10 Britons aged 18-24 said they experience loneliness to some degree with a quarter suffering often and 7% saying they are lonely all the time, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

As Hewings says, it’s no overstatement to say the pandemic has left scars and these scars will take time, and nurturing, to heal:

“Younger people have had much more disruption, which has left a scarring effect which is quite hard to get over. It’s going to be hard to get back to where they were before. The scarring is not going to go away as quickly as you might think or hope. So the best thing companies can do is create a culture in which loneliness is not stigmatised and it’s a reasonable thing to talk about, led from the top.”

Statistics on Loneliness:

  • The pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness among U.K. workers with 44 per cent admitting to often feeling lonely. And almost a third (30 per cent) confess that they feel like an outsider and disconnected from their leaders
  • Compared to 12 months’ ago, 62 per cent of U.K. workers admit to engaging in far fewer social activities with family and friends, even at a distance, with one in three seeing themselves as loners and more than one in four (27 per cent) feeling disconnected from their team.
  • Since the outbreak of Covid, U.K. organisations have only been 28 per cent effective at increasing social connections between employees.
  • The benefits of employees feeling connected, isn’t just a way to reduce loneliness, it also delivers organisational benefits. Employees with strong social connections have less burnout (- 86 per cent) and are more likely to produce great work (+169 per cent). Plus, when employees feel connected, there’s 12 times’ the chance of an organisation thriving.

Source: O.C. Tanner’s 2022 Global Culture Report (an analysis of the perspectives of over 38,000 employees, leaders, HR practitioners and executives from 21 countries around the world, including over 2,500 from the U.K)

About the author

Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.

She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.

When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.