How can employers support staff experiencing loneliness?

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Simon Blake argues that HR teams need to do more to help employees who might be feeling isolated

Credit: Ridvan Celik/Getty Images

As research from the Mental Health Foundation tells us, “loneliness isn’t about the number of friends we have, the time we spend on our own or something that happens when we reach a certain age. Instead, it is a feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want. It can therefore be experienced differently by all of us.”

People who experience loneliness often talk of a gnawing sense of isolation, something I think we can all understand a little more after the last couple of years. We probably all need to think about loneliness a bit more than we do currently, and as the people responsible for the employees in our organisations, it’s vital to think about the impact of loneliness in the workplace. What happens when we feel disengaged and disconnected from work and peers and what can people responsible for people do?

When individuals feel disconnected or lonely, they can feel detached from an organisation and be at increased risk of depression, anxiety or stress. The cost of loneliness to UK employers is estimated to be £2.5bn per year, primarily owing to increased staff turnover as well as lower productivity, and wellbeing, ill-health and associated sickness absence. Therefore, supporting social connections as part of workplace wellbeing has benefits for both employers and employees. 

Employers often lead the charge when it comes to key positive shifts in society, helping to smash glass ceilings and create equitable, inclusive workplaces. Now, as we think about new ways of working and develop more flexible and hybrid approaches, we as leaders can helpfully be thinking about reducing loneliness by enabling workplace cultures that make us feel connected. We can:

Create a culture where people are encouraged to stay connected

At MHFA England, as a champion of hybrid working, we ensure that those who continue to work from home feel connected with their colleagues, not just in terms of work but also socially. Our HR team regularly facilitates MHFA England Radio Specials, where staff volunteer to play an hour of their favourite music over Microsoft Teams, while the rest of the organisation listens in. Not only do we get some great music, but the conversations started and the memories reminisced over are a great way to keep people connected.

We know that home working has led to us being more sedentary, which is not good for our mental health. To help our staff get moving and give them a break in their day, we work with a company that runs online fitness sessions. The results are often twofold – increasing people’s movement and fitness but also creating further connections that often follow through into the non-work environment. 

And while it’s important to support how staff choose to work, there is something to be said about spending some dedicated time in the office environment, if individuals feel comfortable to do so. We ask that our staff are in the office one day a month for our all-staff meeting – a day which I love as the office comes alive with the sound of chatter, collaboration and laughter. 

Support staff to support each other 

We train all our teams so they have the knowledge and skills to support one another. We also provide the space and time for colleagues to support one another – whether through meditation classes, spotlight sessions about living with mental illness or being truly anti-racist. 

The confidence of managers to connect and to support wellbeing is absolutely key. I really value the support of my chair, Adah Parris. Our weekly meetings focus on both my wellbeing and the organisation’s performance. As a trusted colleague (and of course, a mental health first aider), she has the skills, empathy, and openness to allow me to bring my whole self to work, which in turn, allows me to work at my optimum level. 

By equipping people managers with the knowledge and tools to recognise the signs of poor mental health, we can help ensure that managers can support employees before a mental health concern escalates.

Champion people and support networks 

Many workplaces have employee resource groups because work, as in wider society, can be more challenging for people who experience prejudice or discrimination. When I came out as gay almost 30 years ago, it was both liberating and challenging. It upended some family relationships for a while and it was a difficult period. Friends and colleagues at work helped me navigate that time. Having an open and supportive workplace that actively encouraged us to bring our whole selves to work (before we at MHFA England launched the My Whole Self campaign), nurtured strong relationships between colleagues and allowed space for peer support networks, was so helpful in keeping me connected. 

Feeling marginalised in society impacts people’s mental health. Staff networks offer a more informal way of coming together to support different groups. I co-sponsor our employee resource group for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies – a brave space for all to come and share their thoughts, learnings, and support. 

Re-evaluate working trends and workplace design 

Working from home throughout a pandemic has taken its toll. We know that many people are feeling fatigued, unmotivated and disconnected from their organisation’s vision. As well as this, lack of face-to-face connection has impacted on the quality of relationships and creative energy. 

In addition, we mustn’t forget about those who have been left behind because of the increase in home working: where the latest technology is prohibitively expensive, where high speed internet connectivity is patchy at best, as well as those who might not feel as comfortable dealing with the virtual world. All these factors have a part to play in workplace loneliness and cannot be ignored. 

In contrast, there is evidence that some people of colour and Black people are finding returning to the office an isolating experience, and in fact they feel psychologically safer at home. People of colour and Black people are more likely to say that they don’t feel the workplace is inclusive and feel pressure to fit in, and research by City Mental Health Alliance reveals a negative impact on some employees’ mental health when they feel pressure to change their behaviour, including feeling isolated, excluded and anxious. With a return to the office, Black people and people of colour may feel they have to ‘cover’: to actively obscure or tone down their thoughts, opinions, feelings and appearance to fit in. 

March 2020 heralded big change – it is clear that we must understand our employees and their preferred ways of working and be acutely tuned in to understanding loneliness and connection in the workplace. HR is so well placed to take the lead on this and work with leaders to create workplaces where people feel meaningfully connected to their colleagues and trust that there is help at hand if they feel lonely or isolated.

Simon Blake OBE is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England