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Employee loneliness at work: How can employers tackle loneliness in the workplace?


Loneliness in the workplace isn’t just an issue for the employees experiencing it. Discover why it’s vital that employers tackle loneliness at work.

Loneliness and poor social connections could be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Plus, loneliness is more common than you might think – 1 in 20 adults report ‘often or always’ feeling lonely.

Quick links:

Why are people lonely at work?

Why should employers address loneliness in the workplace?

How can employers support employees with loneliness?

How can line managers support employees with loneliness?

How can employees help themselves with loneliness?


Why are people lonely at work?

People can feel lonely at work for numerous reasons. These include:

  • Life changes. This can include starting a new role, coming back from parental or sick leave, or approaching retirement.

  • Corporate culture that discourages close relationships or prioritises certain relationships over others.

  • Lack of inclusion. For example, an employee who doesn’t drink for religious reasons or an employee with caring responsibilities both might feel isolated from colleagues who regularly go for after-work drinks.

  • Job roles. Some job roles require more independent working and less time developing close relationships with others. Consultants, short-term contract workers or gig workers may be more prone to feeling lonely.

  • Existing feelings of loneliness. Sadly, loneliness can be a vicious cycle. Research has found that lonely employees are seen as less approachable by their colleagues.

Some have attributed loneliness at work to the rise of remote working and social distancing spurred on by the pandemic. These circumstances may make it more challenging for some employees to form strong relationships. Although this can be a factor, it’s important to remember that high rates of loneliness in employees pre-date the pandemic. A wholesale return to face-to-face working may not be the automatic cure that some believe it to be.

 

Why should employers address loneliness in the workplace?

“Work is for working – not your social life!”

Unfortunately, this is still a view held by many; one that is arguably misguided. Supporting employee wellbeing and addressing loneliness is beneficial for both the employer and employee.

Recent research estimates that loneliness costs UK employers a shocking £2.5 billion every year. This high cost to businesses is due to:

Increased staff turnover. Employees who feel lonely are typically less engaged at work which leads to retention challenges.

Lower wellbeing and productivity

Ill health and sickness absenteeism. Loneliness has been linked to depression, coronary heart disease and stroke.

By tackling loneliness in the workplace, it has the benefit of improving employee wellbeing and can even benefit a business’ bottom line.

 

How can employers support employees with loneliness?


1. Ask your team how they’re feeling

Before you do anything, make sure you ask how your employees feel and what they want. You could use data to find the answers from your team.

  • Review feedback from exit interviews to see if loneliness has driven departures from your organisation.

  • Conduct an anonymous survey, or incorporate questions about loneliness into existing employee feedback surveys.

 

2. Facilitate stronger relationships between employees

‘Feeling lonely in a crowded room’ may be a cliché but it’s for good reason. Just because they’re surrounded by people or having a lot of interaction, that doesn’t mean employees can’t be lonely.

Therefore, to tackle loneliness, employers should focus on improving the quality of relationships between colleagues rather than increasing the frequency of interactions. This may require a culture shift to accomplish.

Forget dated ‘trust exercises’, the most effective areas to focus on include:

  • Psychological safety. Do employees at all levels feel comfortable to ask questions or offer ideas in meetings? Are they scared to take risks in case they make a mistake? Without vulnerability, it’s impossible to build closer relationships. Make sure employees feel psychologically safe by responding positively when they speak up.

  • Empathy. You can promote empathy throughout your business by encouraging senior leaders to act as role models. If a senior leader was open about, for example, feeling nervous about public speaking, it gives employees permission to be more empathetic to others and to themselves as well.

  • Collaboration. Encourage team leaders to review their processes to see if there are more opportunities for employees to collaborate. HR teams could also trial a buddy system to support positive relationships and cross-functional collaboration.

  • Inclusion. Develop a D&I strategy that helps all employees feel supported and included. Here are some best practice ideas to get you started:

    - If your workplace celebrates Christmas, consider recognising other religious holidays as well

    - Make sure the workplace is accessible for disabled colleagues

    - Consider setting up employee networks where colleagues can connect and make recommendations to inform future D&I strategy. Many organisations have networks for LGBT colleagues or new parents, for example.

  • Fun! Encourage employees to spend time together with our ideas for inclusive, healthy socials


3. Give employees someone to talk to

Loneliness stigma is real, and it can feel like an invisible burden for some employees. There are some who will be unable to be candid about their feelings, even when directly asked.

Make sure you’re offering employees the support they need with a Mental Health Helpline or EAP. These tools enable employees to talk about their feelings anonymously with an impartial expert. This can help to remove some of the stigma.


How can line managers support employees with loneliness?

Line managers are vital to supporting the health and wellbeing of their teams. Make sure that line managers in your business are equipped to address the issue of loneliness.

  • Learn how to spot the signs. Our research found that one third of employees wouldn’t want to talk to their manager if they were struggling with mental health issues. Therefore, it’s vital that line managers are educated on loneliness and can spot potential warning signs, such as:

    - Spending a lot of time alone

    - No close friends or acquaintances at work

    - Lack of engagement in social activities

    - They’ve recently been through a significant life event

    - These signs don’t necessarily mean someone is feeling lonely, but it could be worth monitoring.

  • Strengthen relationships. Having a close, supportive relationship with one’s line manager can go a long way to tackling loneliness. Encourage line managers in your business to take an interest in their team outside of work. You might want to consider training your line managers in active listening to improve conversations.

If an employee has a close bond with their line manager, it can give them the confidence to open up about their feelings, including feelings of loneliness.


How can employees help themselves deal with loneliness?

While employers can do a lot to support their teams, there are things that individuals can do themselves to tackle loneliness. Make sure your line managers are informed and able to recommend self-management tips to employees.

  • Know that you’re not alone. There’s no shame in feeling lonely and many other people feel (or have felt) the same.

  • Be proactive. If you want to develop your relationships at work, put yourself out there at a pace that feels comfortable for you. You could try saying hello to someone in the kitchen or calling someone rather than emailing. If you’ve been dealing with chronic loneliness for some time, this might be more challenging – but the reward will be worth it!

  • Ask for help. Speak to someone you trust or reach out to a professional via an EAP.

If your employees are Benenden Health members, encourage them to use the Mental Health Helpline for expert support.


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