Time To Talk About Loneliness At Work
Since it launched, just four years ago, Time To Talk Day, which happens on the first Thursday in February, has inspired millions of people to open up about mental health.
However, one area that remains very taboo is the impact that loneliness has on the mental health of employees. Far from just being a feeling, loneliness is worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32% (Valtorta et al, 2016), reducing overall life expectancy by seven years (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015).
It’s now such a chronic problem across the UK 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 addressing the issue. Here are six steps you can take to get the conversation started and make loneliness at work a thing of the past…
1. Make employees aware of the problem
Loneliness is now a chronic problem across the UK, affecting millions of people. What’s more, you don’t have to be a ‘loner’ to feel lonely. Research shows that lonely people are no less attractive, intelligent or popular. What characterises loneliness is a sense of isolation, of relationships not meeting social needs.
Even though loneliness has been proven to be worse for our health and life expectancy than other well-known risk factors, such as obesity and physical inactivity, most people simply aren’t aware how detrimental loneliness can be to their health.
By making employees aware of the health risks, you can start the process of motivating them to do something about any feelings of loneliness.
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) are vitally important to enable 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.
Similarly, if someone’s been out of work for a long time, with an illness or on maternity or paternity leave, HR can help them to sustain and rebuild social connections by creating opportunities for them to interact with colleagues socially while they’re away and phasing their return so that it becomes a welcoming, rather than daunting prospect.
4. Get employees to act on early warning signs
Many employees have learned to live with the sad feelings of loneliness that are our bodies' way of trying to warn us 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, managers have a valuable role to play in spotting people in need of extra emotional support.
6. Work on everyone’s empathy skills
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is the bedrock of all relationships.
In our busy lives, it’s all too easy to become self-absorbed in our own lives, disconnecting ourselves from others, when it’s our ability to show empathy for one another that brings us closer.
Similarly, people trapped in the cycle of loneliness are often so preoccupied with negative feelings about themselves that they’ve forgotten how to show genuine interest in others. By helping employees develop empathy skills you can help everyone connect.
Karen Matovu is head of mental health training for managers at Validium