Much ink has been spilled exploring the benefits of flexible working. A recent study from Microsoft found that 71 per cent of UK workers would like the option to continue to work remotely in the future, indicating that the trend is here to stay.
However, the adoption of such practices is also causing a surge in loneliness among workers. Research has shown that 73 per cent of office workers would like employers to address loneliness among those working flexibly. This finding is just the tip of the iceberg, and as flexible working becomes a common part of working life, it’s likely the epidemic of loneliness will continue to snowball.
Feelings of isolation can affect anyone. Notably, scores for happiness and life satisfaction in 2020 and 2021 were at their lowest levels in the last decade, according to the Office for National Statistics, even though some periods were spent outside of lockdown.
Faced with such a widespread issue, it’s vital that HR professionals put in place the tools to support employees effectively.
The root causes of loneliness
Workplace-related loneliness can develop in a number of ways, and be linked to a variety of root causes. Often, an individual who already has existing feelings of loneliness in their home lives may carry it into the workplace.
Added to this, there are certain aspects of work which may exacerbate loneliness, such as spending lots of time working independently or remotely, or if an organisation has a negative culture or poor team dynamics. Stress or long hours can also significantly impact upon personal lives, and many professionals report they work longer when working from home.
In its Employers and Loneliness 2021 report published last year, the government discovered that “the reliance on virtual connection, reduced opportunities for networking and shared activities have had an impact on social connections”. To tackle the problem, the government report highlights five key areas that HR professionals must consider:
Culture and infrastructure
By raising awareness of loneliness and creating a culture where it is openly discussed, employers can effectively destigmatise the issue. This should start at a leadership level. Management must align with an organisation’s values, to ensure that cooperation and connectedness are promoted throughout the organisation.
Identifying what matters to employees should also be a fundamental priority. HR practitioners should proactively ask employees what they feel can be done to help, to build a detailed picture of the problem.
Another step is to put in place dedicated champions who are trained to alleviate loneliness in the workplace. Creating a network of contacts that can pick up on signs, particularly with a homeworking workforce, will help peers who may not be comfortable speaking directly to management.
With the scale of the issue in the UK, it’s important that detection is built into the key responsibilities of managers. Managers should be provided with support and training to ensure that they are comfortable handling emotional and difficult conversations, and be equipped to set clear boundaries and signpost employees to sources of expert guidance.
People and networks
Another tactic that will go a long way towards helping to build connections is to create a variety of networks or peer groups. This is particularly powerful for employees working remotely. Virtual groups can be work-focused or unrelated to work, such as dedicated book groups or exercise teams.
Creating space and time for connection where people are encouraged not to talk about work can foster closer bonds among teams. For example, building virtual coffee mornings into diaries and promoting shared activities such as online workshops, mentoring programmes, and social events, will noticeably improve employees’ wellbeing and performance too.
Good communication is also key, and can be supported by a calendar of regular virtual meetings, an internal newsletter, or by implementing a buddy system with regular check-ins.
Wider role in the community
Allowing employees to volunteer for charities or participate in local initiatives that are addressing loneliness is another way of strengthening relationships.
The importance of employee wellbeing has risen to prominence over the past few years, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only reinforced this. Employers that do not treat these issues with utmost importance risk losing key personnel due to mental and physical ill-health. As it stands, the estimated cost of loneliness to UK employers is £2.5bn every year, but even more importantly, tackling loneliness among staff will make for a happier, more resilient and more productive workforce.
Nick Campbell is head of employment at Brabners