We always think of someone being lonely because they are physically on their own and those reasons could be down to:

  • Living alone
  • Children have left home ’empty nest’ or you are the first amongst friends to have a child
  • A relationship has ended
  • Contact has been lost with friends or family
  • Been in a bubble for whatever reason and now out the other side
  • You’ve worked, worked and worked. Been so busy that when you have come up for air, looked around and no one is here.
  • Specific time of year – Christmas, Birthdays or even bank holidays.
  • Developing a health condition, mental illness, disability, drug or alcohol addiction.

 

Loneliness though is a normal emotion and can be felt when someone perceives they are alone, being shunned by and or isolated from people.  It is one of those feelings that can creep up on when least expected it and can happen to anyone of us.  We don’t necessarily need to be on physically alone.

What does loneliness look like in the workplace

Many a time in my previous HR career I heard people say they felt lonely at work and when I explored with them what this felt like, I heard

  • Left out of conversations and other communication
  • Excluded from group activities either during work, after work or both.
  • No contact from managers or colleagues when working remotely (and this was before Covid)
  • Ignored in day-to-day pleasantries of hello and goodbyes.
  • Conversations stopping as they came near or walked into the room.
  • Heavy workload, burnout
  • No close/best friend at work
  • An overwhelming feeling of being ostracised.

The last 2 years have been very challenging with many people working from home, so a degree of loneliness and feelings of abandonment is somewhat expected.  However, these were being highlighted way before Covid and was something even I personally experienced in my working life.

Remember Loneliness is a subjective experience, so there are no “hard and fast” rules about what it looks like. Many people hide their feelings as they feel embarrassed, feel they’ll be laughed or mocked at and may even think that sharing this would be seen as a sign of weakness to share. In return this can make loneliness difficult to identify.

 

How does loneliness Impact the workplace

Research has shown that loneliness costs an estimated £2.5 billion ever year.  Primarily due to:

  • Impact on retention. People would rather move to organisations where the culture is more inclusive than stay where they are
  • Individuals who feel lonely at work feel less productive and engaged. In turn these impact on output and deliverables.
  • People are less creative and unable to come up with new ideas. They feel stifled, unappreciated and have a fear their ideas will be dismissed.
  • Absence due to stress is 5x likely to be caused by feeling lonely at work.

 

Impact on the individual

Believe it or not, 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 alone or isolated out bodies enter a state of stress. We shorten our breath; we tense our muscles and in turn our heart rate becomes accelerated.   This increases the likelihood of heart disease by 29% and risk of stroke by 32%; reducing our overall life expectancy by seven years.  Added to this the increase of anxiety and depression.

 

What can we do to combat loneliness at work?

Firstly, acknowledge that most people spend more of their waking time at work with colleagues than they do with their families even if not physically.  In the new world of hybrid working the potential for loneliness can increase and as we know it is not limited to those who live on their own, a Gallup poll found those who came into the office at least one day a week were happiest that those who don’t

 

As employers there are lots of opportunities to create social interaction such as

  • Regular conversations with your colleagues – not just meetings. Old fashioned picking up the phone and speaking to them.  Even if it is not work related, show you care and value them.
  • Agree ways to keep in touch with each other. Lots of people are experiencing zoom fatigue and emails feel like a tick box and add to the workload
  • Shared break out areas that are designed for interacting with others.
  • Encouraging eating lunch away from their desks in break out areas
  • Creating a social group by various member of the business who can build lunch time activities that cater for everyone from games, book club, craft group, walk and talk. Even some development groups like learning a language or skill.
  • Introducing a buddy scheme where they sign up and agree to meet their buddy for lunch x times a month. Get people from across departments meeting up and getting to know each other.
  • Delivering workshops on managing loneliness, anxiety, and other wellbeing courses to help individual identify where they are, what they can do and reassure themselves that they are not alone.
  • Developing your line managers in the art of asking engaging conversations with their team. Asking open questions and listening.  Really understanding what is happening right now for their team.

 

This is not a tick box exercise, to really help your employees you really need to listen to them to find out what they want or need.  So be open to hearing and actioning what they need for everyone to feel included and appreciated at work, one size does not fit all.

 

It has been proven that employees who feel well connected within the workplace are more engaged and productivity is increased.  So what are you going to do today to combat loneliness in your workplace?

 

Photo by Christina on Unsplash