How HR can tackle loneliness at work

By supporting staff to build social connections, people professionals will help create a more productive and resilient workforce, says Robin Hewings

How HR can tackle loneliness at work

Why is addressing loneliness important? 

The pandemic has shown to all of us how much our friendships and connections mean to us. As well as being a deeply corrosive experience in itself, chronic loneliness affects our mental and physical health and even mortality. We also know that tackling loneliness is complex, and needs a response from all parts of society. 

You can experience loneliness whatever your age or background. And loneliness is all-pervading – you can be lonely at home or at work or even both – with many people continuing to work in isolation at home.

Cost to UK’s employers 

Covid has isolated us from a lot of the social networking that normally happens at work. It is critical for employers, particularly the HR function, to recognise the cost of loneliness to their business. 

According to a 2017 Co-op and New Economics Foundation report, the cost of loneliness to UK employers was estimated at £2.5bn every year. Good-quality meaningful connections are associated with better outcomes in terms of quality of work, higher wellbeing and greater engagement in work. Across work roles, a lack of social connection and loneliness can lead to less commitment and productivity and greater absenteeism and staff turnover – and employees who feel lonely appear less approachable to their colleagues.

The role of HR 

By addressing loneliness and supporting employees to build social connections, employers can ensure a more productive and resilient workforce. Workplaces where employees have a strong sense of organisational identity are more able to withstand the effects of recession and maintain performance. 

And so, in the same way that many of you as HR professionals have led the way in addressing mental health and wellbeing at work, we need you on behalf of your organisation to start a conversation about loneliness. Many are already – the Campaign to End Loneliness was recently commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to find out more about the main ways to combat loneliness at work. 

The resulting guide – Employers and loneliness – was drawn from extensive consultation with the government’s Tackling Loneliness Network’s employers’ group, which included some of the UK's leading employers. We found many examples of good practice in organisations both large and small. For example, Re-engage, a small charity, introduced a range of initiatives to support staff, such as reach strategy champions and a buddy system; and Zurich, a large financial services firm, developed a programme specifically to tackle loneliness among its retirees.

It became clear that by looking at examples of what was working, it was possible to identify five key themes when it comes to addressing loneliness at work:

  1. Culture and infrastructure: Identifying what really matters to employees and aligning it with corporate values and embedding loneliness into other wellbeing and welfare activities.
  2. Management: The different kinds of support, training and guidance that can aid managers in identifying and helping those employees who are experiencing loneliness.
  3. People and networks: How people have used networks to address loneliness, including while working remotely.
  4. Work and workplace design: How employers have tackled a dispersed workforce and the tools and systems that can promote visibility and connections.
  5. Wider role in the community: How some employers have sought to tackle loneliness beyond our immediate workforce.

How can HR measure initiatives to combat loneliness?

One of the challenges for HR is how do you measure the impact of tackling loneliness? Many HR practitioners will be aware of the work that the What Works Centre for Wellbeing has done to measure the impact of wellbeing programmes in collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions. 

They have developed a set of questions to give employers a quick snapshot of how people are doing with respect to different aspects of wellbeing. As part of this work, you can also pull in specific questions about loneliness from their question bank

HR professionals, in their role of recruiting and retaining talent in their organisation, must also address loneliness as part of their work in improving employee wellbeing and thus their commitment and productivity. This is critical as we recover from the pandemic. We are at an early stage but we hope Employers and loneliness will help HR professionals start that conversation on loneliness at work.

Robin Hewings is programme director at the Campaign to End Loneliness