Even before the upheavals of the past few months where many people have been in lockdown, working from home and unable to visit those they feel closest to, the way we live and work has changed. We face multiple pressures from increasing workloads, to caring responsibilities and a range of other demands on our time which increases stress and impacts our work-life balance.
Indeed, for the fourth consecutive month, one of the main drivers of the Mental Health Index™ is isolation, according to the July 2020 report by Morneau Shepell.
Loneliness costs UK employers £2.5bn annually
In fact, Aon’s guide cites research from EY that found that 40% of employees stated they felt isolated in their role significantly impacting the individuals and the business. Lonelier workers have lower job satisfaction, have fewer promotions, and have a higher likelihood of leaving their current job within the next six months. There is also a link between loneliness and poor performance, impaired creativity, lower productivity levels and poor decision making. On top of this, further research shows that lonely employees are seen as less approachable, which in turn has an impact on collaborative working.
Loneliness increases the risk of developing serious health issues
Studies have also shown that loneliness can increase the risk of developing serious health issues. It has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and dementia. On top of this, a study into how COVID-19 has affected anxiety has shown that those who report they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel lonely were almost five times more likely to have higher levels of anxiety than those who ‘never’ feel lonely; the impact of loneliness is a tangible one4.
Research also shows it is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is worse for an individual than obesity. It also increases stress hormones impacting our immune function.
As a result, ill health typically leads to an increase in absenteeism and presenteeism – which have a clear economic impact (combined, they cost the UK economy £81 billion each year).
We all can feel lonely
The fact is that everyone feels lonely at times. It’s when the feeling is more persistent (or “chronic”) that it becomes a problem, impacts our health, and starts to damage our ability to connect with others, and it’s non-discriminatory, affecting many people at different times of their lives, perhaps if changing jobs, losing a loved one, are marginalised or are being bullied or feeling pressure.
Practical steps employers can take
Employers can take practical and supportive steps. Among our recommendations are appointing a board member responsible for a loneliness strategy, raising awareness of the issue to tackle any stigma, communicating benefits and services available to staff, encouraging staff to broaden their networks, while reviewing employee support during key transition periods – bereavement, parenthood and retirement for example.
There is a misconception that loneliness is an issue of the elderly, yet it impacts people at work too meaning individuals and employers can pay a high price. There’s an opportunity to help everyone understand loneliness more, enabling people to get the support they need at a time it’s most helpful.
Loneliness is incredibly relatable, so raising awareness of the problem at work helps everyone make a difference.
About the author
Charles is Head of Wellbeing Solutions in the UK, leading a team of experts who advise employers on people health risk. During his 20-year career he has worked with many diverse organisations to help them achieve their employee wellbeing aspirations. Drawing on his lived experience of mental health issues, Charles is a strong advocate for the role the workplace can play to protect and enhance mental health. He is a qualified Mental Health First Aider and holds an MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing. Charles represents Aon at the Manchester Business School National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work and serves on the Board of the mental health charity Dorset Mind.