As research from the Mental Health Foundation says, “Loneliness is not about how many friends we have, how much time we spend alone, or something that happens when we reach a certain age. Instead, it’s a feeling we experience when there’s a mismatch between the social connections we have and the ones we need or want. It can therefore be experienced differently by each of us.
People who live in loneliness often talk about a gnawing sense of isolation, which I think we can all relate to a little more after these last two years. We all probably need to think about loneliness a little more than we currently do, and as leaders of the employees in our organizations, it’s essential to think about the impact of loneliness in the workplace. What happens when we feel disengaged and disconnected from work and our peers and what can people responsible for people do?
When individuals feel disconnected or lonely, they may feel detached from an organization and be at increased risk for depression, anxiety, or stress. The cost of loneliness for UK employers is estimated at £2.5 billion a year, primarily due to increased staff turnover as well as lower productivity, and associated welfare, poor health and sickness absence. Therefore, supporting social connections as part of workplace well-being has benefits for both employers and employees.
Employers often lead the charge when it comes to key positive changes in society, helping to break glass ceilings and create fair and inclusive workplaces. Now, as we think about new ways of working and develop more flexible and hybrid approaches, we as leaders can usefully think about reducing loneliness by fostering work cultures that make us feel connected. We can:
Create a culture where people are encouraged to stay connected
At MHFA England, as champions of hybrid working, we ensure that those who continue to work from home feel connected with their colleagues, not only in terms of work but also socially. Our HR team regularly host the MHFA England radio specials, where staff volunteer to play an hour of their favorite music on Microsoft Teams, while the rest of the organization tune in. Not only do we get great music, but conversations started and memories Memories are a great way to keep people connected.
We know that working from home has led us to be more sedentary, which is not good for our mental health. To help our employees move and give them a break from their day, we work with a company that organizes online fitness sessions. The results are often twofold: to increase people’s mobility and physical condition, but also to create other links that often extend into the non-professional environment.
And while it’s important to support the way staff choose to work, there’s something to be said for spending dedicated time in the office environment, if individuals feel comfortable do it. We ask our staff to be in the office one day a month for our all-staff meeting – a day I love when the office comes alive with the sound of chatter, collaboration and laughter.
Support staff to support each other
We train all of our teams so they have the knowledge and skills to support each other. We also provide the space and time for colleagues to support each other – whether through meditation classes, spotlight sessions on living with mental illness or being truly anti-racist.
Managers’ confidence to connect and support wellbeing is absolutely essential. I really appreciate the support of my President, Adah Parris. Our weekly meetings focus on both my well-being and the performance of the organization. As a trusted colleague (and of course mental health first aider), she has the skills, empathy and openness to allow me to focus fully on the job, allowing me to work at my optimal level. .
By equipping people managers with the knowledge and tools to recognize the signs of poor mental health, we can help ensure managers can support employees before a mental health issue escalates.
Advocate for people and support networks
Many workplaces have employee resource groups because work, as in society in general, can be more difficult for people who experience prejudice or discrimination. When I came out almost 30 years ago, it was both liberating and empowering. It upset some family relationships for a while and it was a difficult time. Friends and co-workers helped me through this time. Having an open and supportive workplace that actively encouraged us all to get to work (before we at MHFA England launched the My Whole Self Campaign), nurtured strong co-worker relationships and allowed space for peer support networks, has been so helpful in keeping me connected.
Feeling marginalized in society has an impact on people’s mental health. Staff networks offer a more informal way to come together to support different groups. I co-sponsor our Employee Resource Group for the LGBTQIA+ Community and Allies – a courageous space where all can come and share their thoughts, learnings and support.
Reassess work trends and workplace design
Working from home during a pandemic has taken its toll. We know that many people feel tired, unmotivated and disconnected from their organization’s vision. On top of that, the lack of face-to-face connection impacted the quality of relationships and creative energy.
Furthermore, we must not forget those who have been left behind by the rise of working from home: where the latest technology is prohibitively expensive, where high-speed internet connectivity is spotty at best, as well as those who might not feel as comfortable with the virtual world. All of these factors have a role to play in loneliness at work and cannot be ignored.
In contrast, there is evidence that some people of color and black people find returning to the office an isolating experience and, in fact, feel psychologically safer at home. People of color and black people are more likely to say they don’t think the workplace is inclusive and feel pressure to fit in, and research by City Mental Health Alliance reveals a negative impact on the mental health of some employees when they feel compelled to change their behavior, including feeling isolated, excluded and anxious. With a return to the office, black people and people of color may feel they need to “cover up”: actively obscuring or toning down their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and appearance to fit in.
March 2020 heralded a big change – it’s clear that we need to understand our people and their preferred ways of working and be fully tuned to understand loneliness and connection at work. HR is so well placed to take the lead and work with leaders to create workplaces where people feel meaningfully connected to their colleagues and trust that there is help at their fingertips. they feel alone or isolated.
Simon Blake OBE is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England