Does hybrid working increase loneliness?

There are proven links between reduced human contact and poor wellbeing that employers need to urgently address, argues Gosia Bowling

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A conventional description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for fulfilling relationships and social contact is not met. Nearly half of the UK population has reported feeling lonely at times, and other research shows 39 per cent of us believe our wellbeing was negatively impacted because of experiencing loneliness.

The average person will spend a third of their life at work, so having connections within the workplace is key, but not always an option. People can feel lonely in the workplace for lots of reasons. For example, we have a high need for attention, warmth and attachment to others. When such relationships end, or if someone finds themselves in an abusive or emotionally non-existent relationship, this can increase feelings of isolation.

The rise of the ‘internet generation’ has also created a lonelier global population. While the internet provides people with an easier way to interact, some of us are substituting meaningful real-life human contact with more superficial online connections instead. Social factors, like feeling a lack of ‘natural fit’ with colleagues in the workplace, or feeling overwhelmed by social situations, can increase the risk of loneliness.

Clearly, loneliness has a huge effect on those experiencing it, but it can also have major costs for the organisations at which individuals are employed.

Does loneliness affect employee productivity?

The ‘new normal’ of hybrid working presents employees with more flexibility, and there is emerging research that indicates a hybrid work model further increases productivity. However, those who are lonely or in extended seclusion are in fact at risk of reduced productivity in the workplace. 12 per cent of lonely workers claim poorer work quality, less output, and retention rates in their daily routines. There are also indications that this lowered performance and reduced drive to achieve could cost the U.K alone £2.5bn.

Can loneliness have a long-term impact on physical and emotional wellbeing?

Extended, severe loneliness has a draining impact on positive emotional wellbeing, mounting anxiety levels and risks of depression. There is also a strong physiological impact of loneliness, and according to research, both loneliness and social isolation are linked with an increased risk of heart conditions. A constant state of ‘flight or fight’ stress signalling in the body can, in turn, negatively impact an individual’s immune system functioning.

As we move towards hybrid and remote working models, it’s essential businesses create inclusive and connected workplace environments where people feel supported and a sense of belonging. Not only will this help productivity, but it will also enhance employee happiness and help fight feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness signals

Recent Nuffield Health research discovered two-thirds of employees are apprehensive when it comes to raising mental health issues in their workplaces, so it’s imperative businesses are trained to recognise the signs of loneliness in others.

The emotional toll of loneliness can be seen in various ways, including diminished social interaction in the office, a decline in appearance and hygiene, or even in the individual’s work performance and output. In remote workers, this may present itself in video meetings or calls. Does the individual seem to crave conversation and contact? Or are they less chatty than normal? Changes to behaviour can give signals as well as an opening to check in with employees about their wellbeing.

Build bonds

Attuned employers can notice staff showing signs of loneliness or distress and reach out to them. This could be as simple as asking ‘how are you?’ or suggesting more frequent meetings to catch up on their work and wellbeing.

Businesses can play an important part in forming surroundings where employees feel a sense of connection and belonging by promoting campaigns which nurture connection and team building. For example, Nuffield Health recently launched its ‘Find 5 with 5’ campaign, which inspires employees to spend five minutes with five other people every day, doing something that improves their wellbeing.

This could include sharing personal ‘wins’ each day over an instant messaging platform, nominating an individual to lead five minutes of group guided breathing, or even hosting mini instructor-led fitness circuits each week.

Support with formal emotional and physical wellbeing policies

Business leaders can organise, or raise awareness of, available physical health screenings in the office to expose any underlying issues among employees. Remember, mental and physical health are intrinsically linked.

The biological and hormonal changes we experience when we’re anxious, stressed, or depressed can influence our physical health, causing nausea, an upset stomach and headaches. Injury, illness, and disabilities can equally impact our mood and outlook.

Urging employees to #find5 throughout the working day could be as straightforward as encouraging regular exercise in morning meetings or creating assets to be distributed around the office or over email. Over a week, this adds up to 35 minutes – boosting the UK average 40-minute exercising time to the NHS-recommended 75 minutes per week.

While significant social interaction plays a pivotal part in decreasing loneliness, formal wellbeing support can be hugely beneficial. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert. Employees should be well signposted towards the support on offer, along with guidance and reassurance on how to access available help. This may be via email to employees, an office huddle or a virtual wellbeing hub.

Gosia Bowling is emotional wellbeing lead at  Nuffield Health