Loneliness is now a chronic problem across the UK, so much so that the government has appointed a minister for loneliness to help address the scale of the issue.
But given that many people’s only source of interaction with other people is through work, employers also have a vital role to play in tackling the problem. Here are five steps you can take to help:
1. Make loneliness a wellbeing priority
Far from just being a feeling, loneliness is a serious health risk that’s more detrimental to employee wellbeing than other known risk factors, such as overeating or physical inactivity.
When we feel isolated and alone, our bodies enter into a heightened state of stress, shortening our breath, tensing our muscles and accelerating our heart rate. It increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent and the risk of stoke by 32 per cent, reducing overall life expectancy by seven years.
Wellbeing materials should therefore be updated to make employees aware of the health risks and wellbeing strategies devised to encourage employees to make more social connections, both in and outside of work.
2. Create opportunities for social interaction
Most people spend more time with their colleagues at work than they do with their families. Employers therefore have lots of opportunities to create positive opportunities for social interaction. Such opportunities – which could be as simple as creating shared breakout areas and encouraging people to eat lunch together instead of in isolation at their desks – can provide huge emotional benefits.
Well-connected employees are not only more engaged and more productive; there’s increasing evidence that your social capital (the relationships and networks within the business) is vital in enabling your organisation to overcome challenges and remain agile.
3. Preserve social structures
Many of the social structures that were once in place at work have become eroded. More and more employees are working from home. Workers who might have once come into a depot and met with their colleagues before starting their day, or who might have worked alongside a colleague, are now working alone and feeling isolated.
HR has a vital role to play in helping the business weigh the benefit of any efficiency-boosting measures against the value of sustaining peer-to-peer interaction as a means of preventing mental health and absence issues.
4. Get employees to act on early warning signs
Many people have learned to live with the sad feelings of loneliness that are our bodies' way of trying to warn us that we need to do more to connect with others. By educating employees about the need to act on the feelings of low mood associated with loneliness, you can help them take action before the prolonged state of stress associated with loneliness sets in.
People who travel a lot for work and homeworkers are at particular risk of isolation. They would benefit from resilience training to help them understand the link between their actions and how they’re feeling, encouragement to keep their social batteries charged by going out into the local community at lunchtime, or support to connect more with their partner or friends in the evening.
5. Develop managers to provide appropriate support
Prolonged loneliness can all-too easily result after a big life change such as starting a family, children flying the nest, a relationship break-up, bereavement or even a promotion that moves someone to a new location or distances them from their previous peer group.
By developing managers to view managing mental health as part of their overall people responsibilities, and encouraging them to keep an eye on how well someone affected by these changes is sustaining social connections with others, they will become proficient in spotting people in need of extra emotional support.
Karen Matovu is head of mental health training for managers at Validium