The coronavirus pandemic changed the way that many people work forever, across a range of sectors, and demonstrated that staff can be productive from home or even another country. However, the ‘work from home’ transformation has not been without its problems or hurdles, and the lack of interaction and contact has the potential to increase the risk of people feeling lonely or isolated.
Loneliness Awareness Week, which runs from 13-17 June, aims to raise awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental wellbeing and the practical steps we can take to address it.
If the result of a recent survey by Silicon Reef is representative of those working remotely in the UK, more than two-thirds are struggling with loneliness and believe that it is their employer’s responsibility to do more. This view is twice as prevalent in younger workers (18-36) compared to their older colleagues.
Loneliness can have harmful long-term effects on individuals’ mental and physical wellbeing. For businesses, this can also affect productivity – with staff more likely to start missing work due to stress – and ultimately retention, as they become disengaged from their peers and managers. Coupled with Mental Health First Aid England’s recent findings that nearly 50 per cent of employees said their employer did not conduct a wellbeing check in last year, loneliness is becoming a real risk to employees and employers alike.
In meeting this challenge, and helping to prevent team members feeling isolated or alone, there are a number of key things employers and managers should consider:
Take an interest in your team’s lives. It may sound simple, but so many managers do not take a clear and active interest, or worse yet do not listen properly to concerns. If a manager asks a question but does not genuinely take the response onboard – perhaps raising the information incorrectly at a later date – it will suggest to the employee that they don’t matter or the manager does not care.
Everyone has busy workloads, but time should be made to speak to your team members. Get to know them and ask about their lives and how they are. importantly this will aid overall team communication and promote a position whereby an employee believes they can talk to their manager about issues affecting them.
Remember little things in an employee’s life – from birthdays to how they take their coffee. Even small gestures such as this will show an employee that you do care about them, they are not just another number in the organisation and that you are thinking of them outside of their role. It is part of making sure they feel valued, acknowledged and appreciated.
Be approachable. If you are contacted by a team member while you are both working from home, do not sigh when you answer the call or give the impression that you’re being disturbed. This can make the employee feel like they are a hindrance and that they are isolated. If you are too busy it can be better not to answer and instead go back to them as soon as possible – or to text or email to tell them you are in the middle of something and agree a time for a call back. Just make sure you don't forget to call.
Tackle exhaustion. As you take an interest and get to know your team better it may become apparent that an employee is struggling due to working longer hours or not taking breaks. Make sure they feel able and encouraged to take breaks – even ensure they see you making time as well to lead by example. Relieve any guilt they might have and actively praise them for having boundaries when at home and a work-life balance. To facilitate this, you may also want to dig down into their workload, ask how you can help, and see whether any tasks should be spread across teams.
These may sound like simple steps, but it’s often in these small but vital areas that issues arise. Many managers or leaders easily miss these steps due to their own pressures, and by the time they realise, it can be too late – employees may already be disengaged, suffering in silence, and considering resignation. Time is of the essence, and acting now rather than later will help to prevent staff isolation or loneliness down the road.
Paul Hayward is a senior associate in the employment law team at Blake Morgan and a qualified mental health first aider