Tackling loneliness at work

Megan Thompson · May 10, 2022

Feeling alone is a key indicator of poor mental health, so it is apt that the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has selected loneliness as the theme for the 2022 Mental Health Awareness Week (9th-15th May 2022).

Most of us feel lonely at some point in our lives and it can be debilitating. It can erode our sense of self-worth and belonging.

The MHF explains why loneliness can be so detrimental to mental health: “It is not about the number of friends we have, the time we spend on our own or something that happens when we reach a certain age. Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want. That means it can be different for all of us.”

Loneliness is not only experienced when we are alone – as incongruent as it sounds, we can also feel lonely in a crowd. That said, the absence of physical company is an obvious trigger.

The pandemic factor

Lonely girlA detailed Mental Health in the Pandemic study showed that during the Covid-19 lockdowns, loneliness was almost 3 times that of pre-pandemic levels. Connections with loved ones, friends, family, and everyday relationships were disrupted, or in some cases broken altogether.

Another survey in 2021, this time commissioned by the Campaign to End Loneliness, examined the instances of loneliness by distinct demographics. It found that Covid-19 exacerbated existing inequalities, meaning that groups already at risk of loneliness – such as those who were poorer, in worse health or from ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ communities – were even more susceptible to feelings of loneliness during the pandemic.

Covid-19 undoubtedly severed many social connections. A striking statistic from the survey was that 71% believed that loneliness was going to be a serious issue beyond Covid-19.

Covid-19 made the situation worse, but the studies reveal that most people saw it as a major problem that existed before, as well as after, the pandemic. With most people now back at the workplace, either permanently or as part of a hybrid model, it is apparent that the loneliness crisis will not simply fade away.

Loneliness in work

Loneliness at work is more prevalent than you might think. A 2020 study in the United States found that 61% of those surveyed described themselves as being lonely at work.

The survey respondents reported that factors to help tackle loneliness included having a good work-life balance, having colleagues that they want to have lunch with, socialising with colleagues outside of work and feeling like they do not have to hide their true selves at work.

A surprisingly high number of people state that feeling lonely could be because of the difficulty in spotting the signs.

A Harvard Business Review paper in 2021 made the point that employees don’t advertise their loneliness. It noted: “Objective markers like team membership, network structures, or someone’s degree of extroversion don’t reveal it. Loneliness at work is an entirely subjective internal belief: Few people truly know me or would support me in my time of need. The lonely feel only superficially connected to others, perhaps cordial but not truly collegial.”

How do we know when employees are lonely?

Stressed employeesThe simple answer is to ask them. However, it is not just a case of asking: “Are you lonely?” Many will not consciously recognise that their low spirits are associated with loneliness. And even if they do, there can be a stigma around loneliness. Expressing a sense of loneliness can impact esteem, with the admission confirming a self-perception that people don’t want to be with them.

To discover if employees are lonely, the questions need to be carefully crafted to build up a holistic snapshot of a person’s state of mind and how they are coping at work.

At WeThrive, our employee surveys are based on the 4C model. The questions are designed around the following concepts: Cognitive, Capability, Connection and Confidence. All four concepts can provide insights into whether someone is feeling lonely, but the ‘Connection’ questions are particularly pertinent. Our definition of Connection is ‘our primitive need for togetherness with our fellow humans’.

Importantly, WeThrive’s mental health survey provides feedback directly to individuals. Seconds after completing their survey they can view their full results and access personal action plans in their private WeThrive Bubble.

Tackling loneliness at work

We would all like to work in an environment where everyone gets on and looks out for each other and where it feels like a genuine community. But achieving this kind of culture is easier said than done. Everyone has their own work pressures and worries. It is not always easy to build comradeship. Sometimes a group of people gel naturally, but employers shouldn’t leave it to chance.

So, what can be done? There are some simple remedies that help build connections. Some ideas suggested by HR Magazine include:

• Introducing a ‘no eating at desks’ policy. Encourage people to eat together and take a proper break.
• Hold regular meetings. Get the team together so people are not always isolated at their desks.
• Consider the office layout. Are some people distanced from the rest of the team?
• Encourage time off. People should have a home life and the time to see friends and family.

It is also worth checking advice given by the Mental Health Foundation. And why not get involved in the Mental Health Awareness Week? You can download their awareness pack here.

If you’d like to find out how your staff are truly feeling, why not give WeThrive a try? Book a demo now.