Before the Covid-19 pandemic I had never heard of Zoom nor had I made any particular use of Microsoft Teams but both of these now are somewhat ingrained into our working lives.
Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the way in which employers today manage their people and their businesses. For many, the initial move to homeworking was a welcome relief from day-to-day office life. However, whilst it was initially novel to take our dogs for a walk during lunchtime or have a greater amount of time to spend with children, for many this change came at a significant cost – loneliness.
In consultation with a number of large employers, the Government has recently published some guidance on what employers can do to tackle loneliness in the workplace.
For many of us work can feel like a second home. Typically, people spend as much time in their place of work as they do in their respective homes and workplaces foster within us a sense of identity and accomplishment and allow for a broad range of social interactions. The lack of such interactions, particularly over the past year, has seen a notable increase in people feeling isolated.
Notwithstanding the obvious sociological/ mental health issues which are bound to arise due to loneliness, the Government report estimates that the economic cost of loneliness to employers is £2.5 billion per year – reporting that 80% of this is due to increased staff turnover and lower wellbeing/ productivity.
So, what can we as employers do to stop loneliness and foster better relationships within the workplace?
The report identifies five key themes to tackle loneliness at work arising from contributions made by members of the Employers Leadership Group established by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Campaign to End Loneliness :
- Culture and Infrastructure;
- People and Networks;
- Work and Workplace Design; and
- Action in the Wider Community.
It is suggested that organisational cultures that emphasise individualism and personal success can increase feelings of loneliness and what employers should do is create a culture whereby the importance of genuine social connections in the workplace is paramount. This can be achieved through introducing policies and procedures demonstrate and support the importance of wellbeing and mental health.
The use of mental health first aiders cannot be understated in this situation. The Government suggests the use of a ‘champion’ who is trained on loneliness and wellbeing. The report believes that having such a contact for people within a given organisation is paramount to creating a less isolating culture.
While the Government report states that conducting surveys to find out what is important to employees and how they are feeling can be useful, in my view, this can only go so far. While having a general sense of the overall mood within the workforce is valuable, the real strength in tackling loneliness is in the qualitative engagement with employees – discussing concerns and essentially building up a line of communication where colleagues feel confident in speaking with managers and members of the HR team.
Managers are a huge part of most employees’ lives. They are the people employees ought to look to for guidance, instruction and support. Consequently, it is important that when managers are approached for the latter, they are suitably equipped to deal with difficult conversations. Providing support to managers through appropriate training is vital to enable them to deal with issues when they arise and pro-actively support employees and spot the signs of when an employee may be struggling with their mental health or loneliness.
While anyone can feel lonely, those who are generally most at risk are those who are out of the business for a period of time such as those on long-term sick or maternity leave. Therefore, it is important that we ensure that as employers we keep an open dialogue (insofar as possible) with everyone in the business and create a culture of inclusivity to prevent employees in such situations from feeling excluded and marginalised.
While the vast majority of professional networks and business relationships tend to be less meaningful than close personal relationships, these networks can tremendously benefit an employee’s well-being as well as encouraging problem-solving, collaboration and innovation.
Key to tackling loneliness is promoting a healthy work-life balance. For many during the pandemic and the circumstances that saw many forced to work from home, work-life balance was significantly eroded. Finishing work for the day was not travelling home to family but rather, closing a laptop and moving from one room to another. This has a knock-on effect where the working day did not have a finite end in the same way it might normally have. In addition, this isolated working environment when typically many of us are used to working in an open-plan office or environment compounds feelings of loneliness.
As with almost all things in people management the key aspect here is understanding and communication. It is vital to ensure that employees feel that their employer is approachable. However, the best starting point for ensuring employees feel they can speak with their employer is to take a pro-active approach in helping those struggling with loneliness. This can be through our day-to-day interactions and having in place appropriate policies, guidance, and loneliness champions to let our colleagues know (that even if they feel it at times) they are not alone.