To mark Loneliness Awareness Week Gosia Bowling, emotional wellbeing lead at healthcare charity Nuffield Health, explains how leaders can combat employee loneliness.
Loneliness doesn’t just affect individuals; it’s bad for business. The Co-Op and New Economics Foundation found that loneliness costs UK employers more than £2.5 billion a year: from increased sick days and time off to care for others, to lower productivity and staff retention levels.
Humans have an innate need for connection, from sustained relationships to meaningful daily interactions in the workplace, gym and more. Research suggests nearly half of us now experience occasional loneliness, with many modern influences at play. For example, manual tasks are increasingly moving online and providing us with fewer opportunities for social contact. Recent pandemic-related restrictions on social contact also impacted our wellbeing.
Loneliness is seemingly no more challenging than in the workplace, with three in five employees admitting to feeling lonely at work. It’s a worrying statistic given UK employees work an average of 37 hours per week – more time than many of us spend with friends and family over a whole month.
It’s imperative that we’re equipped to recognise and address signs of loneliness in ourselves and others, to support our mental and physical wellbeing.
Loneliness in a hybrid workplace
While many aspects of our lives have returned to normal post-pandemic, others have changed beyond recognition. For many, this includes the workplace, with recent figures suggesting a quarter of workers are now permanently hybrid.
The benefits of flexible working are regularly championed – including a greater work-life balance and avoiding stressful and costly commutes. However, the negative aspects are less likely to be communicated or supported.
These include difficulty managing the unique challenges of home and office working – which, left unmanaged, can often lead to overworking and burnout, as well as reduced connection.
While many businesses have adopted instant messaging and video call platforms that facilitate real-time collaboration, these don’t fully replicate in-person contact, which is linked to a range of health benefits including increased happiness and cognitive and immune function.
These benefits – or a lack of them – eventually translate into work output. Research suggests 12 percent of lonely workers produce lower quality work and struggle with engagement, with retention rates among these individuals also dropping and costing UK employers £2.5 billion per year.
The long-term impact
Loneliness goes beyond the occasional desire for more social contact and chronically lonely employees who go unsupported are vulnerable to developing serious health risks. Furthermore, according to Nuffield Health’s latest research, a third of UK adults aren’t offered any physical or emotional wellbeing support by their employer.
When we experience these prolonged feelings of loneliness, our bodies release stress hormones that are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. This physical impact of loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness can also have a debilitating impact on our emotional wellbeing, leading to low mood, anxiety, and depression.
The loneliness epidemic is, however, telling us that individuals are recognising the deep human craving for meaningful social interaction. And employers able to nurture a non-lonely workplace will reap the rewards of improved recruitment, retention and productivity.
Creating a culture of connection
The first step in supporting a connected and inclusive workplace is recognising and addressing signs of loneliness. This may present as reduced 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 manifest in video meetings or calls.
Alternatively, does the individual seem to be craving conversation and contact, or being overly talkative? Changes to behaviour patterns can provide indications, as well as an opening to check in with employees about their wellbeing.
Attuned employers can recognise employees presenting with signs of loneliness or distress and reach out to them. This could be as simple as asking ‘how are you doing?’ or offering more regular meetings to catch up on their work.
Similarly, consider how employees may be equipped with the confidence to recognise signs of loneliness in others and approach them. At Nuffield Health, our Emotional Literacy Training nurtures a workforce capable of recognising emotional distress in others, and knowing how to respond with confidence, with 98% of trainees recommending the platform.
However, it’s also important lonely individuals reluctant to speak out about their experiences are aware of resources and support on offer to them. This may include promoting offerings such as Nuffield Health’s ‘find 5 with 5’ campaign – encouraging employees to find five minutes each day to complete an activity that enhances their wellbeing, alongside five colleagues. Common activities include nominating an individual to lead five minutes of group guided breathing or hosting mini ‘instructor-led’ fitness circuits each week.
It’s also important to understand the link between physical and mental health – and, therefore, the role of physical interventions in negating the emotional impact of loneliness. Encouraging employees to ‘find 5’ minutes daily could also include a power walk or a daily exercise challenge. Over a week, this convenient burst of exercise adds up to 35 minutes – boosting the UK average 40-minute exercising time to the NHS-recommended 75 minutes per week.
Additional interventions may include greater flexibility over working arrangements, such as staggering start and finish times or taking longer lunches and catching up on work later in the day. These benefits allow employees to meet friends for coffee or spend more time with family – rewarding social experiences they may not be afforded under a stricter ‘nine to five’. Remote working should also include opportunities for engagement outside of solely ‘task focused’ activities, to create opportunities for connection and social bonding.
Employers should then signpost their team towards the more formal support structures on offer, along with guidance on how to access them. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert.
Gosia is Nuffield Health's emotional wellbeing lead