Would you be shocked if I referred to loneliness as a pandemic? In fact, research shows that loneliness is killing more people than we as a society dare to admit. We are living in a world that has never been more connected. We have access to social media, email, Zoom, networking groups and masterminds. We can arrange online social meetups with people anywhere in the world. During the lockdown in the UK we have embraced connecting digitally, achieving in three months what strategists thought would take years. The digital workplace has arrived.
But at what cost? Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we already knew that loneliness was an issue in our society; research told us that lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those of us with a good social network, making loneliness as big a mortality risk as diabetes. Three groups of people at particular risk from loneliness were identified: Widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions; Unmarried, middle agers with long-term health conditions and, perhaps most surprisingly, younger renters with little trust or sense of belonging to their area. In a survey completed in 2017, responders aged between 16 and 24 were significantly more likely to report feeling lonely.
Why are these findings so important to us as leaders? The impact that loneliness has on individuals can also have a significant impact on the people around them. These are our new recruits, our ‘up-and-coming’, high-performing stars. As leaders, we need to be aware of what influences their decision making and informs their priorities. How we can create an environment where they can flourish and grow. It is up to us as leaders to tackle employee loneliness by putting in place tailored wellbeing measures to support them, especially during these more challenging times. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected and altered our lives in a way not seen for multiple generations. Due to the social restrictions on how we connect with others that have been introduced, albeit to protect us and those around us, the time that we spend with our friends and loved ones has been severely impacted. Naturally, loneliness has become a by-product of these social restrictions for many people around the world and this will only exacerbate the already troubling figures that research has already identified.
Loneliness is often a precursor to developing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. The impact of a team member struggling with these issues can adversely affect the cohesion of any team, high performing or not. Reports have shown that loneliness is contagious and can spread up to three degrees of separation. The risk of a lonely workforce is not to be taken lightly. More than half of the workplace in the UK already testify to feeling lonely.
So how does loneliness affect the wider team? Research
suggests that 68% of employees identified increased stress levels due to
workplace loneliness and it is no secret that a stressed workforce is a less
productive one. In fact, the same statistics suggest that productivity can be affected
by 38%. High stress levels among employees can contribute to higher absences,
increased staff turnover and a negative workplace atmosphere, not to mention
the financial risks. In fact, mental health issues, including work-related
stress, cost the UK billions of pounds;
in England alone, the costs have been estimated at £105.2 billion each year.
Now, amid the Covid-19 impact on the workplace, the risk of employee loneliness is considerably higher than normal and the usual opportunities for intervention have been reduced due to the increase in remote workers and furloughed staff and reduced access to resources and support.
Tackling loneliness in these climes may seem like an insurmountable task; however, there are still several ways that employers can take care of their staff in these challenging times.
Regular, informal one-on-one ‘catch-ups’ with your team members can go a long way to alleviating loneliness and help support the team, building positive and deeper personal connections. If you cannot do these in person (at a safe distance), then host a virtual meeting, or pick up the phone and find out how your team are doing. This can be a great opportunity for the employee to raise any concerns they have regarding their work life and mental health.
Hosting virtual gatherings or staff meetings where employees can interact with their colleagues socially can improve their mood in the process and lead to higher productivity.
You can also flag up the details of your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one, ensuring that your team know support is there if they need it. Encourage them to reach out and reassure them that there is no stigma attached to raising issues like this. The earlier they are addressed; the more difference intervention can make.
For anyone wishing to discuss mental health concerns, having a Mental Health First Aider just a phone call away to provide a compassionate, listening ear can really help team members develop healthy self-help and self-care routines. Building in ways that your team can connect at a heart level, where they can share their feelings and find a warm supportive group will lead to higher performance, increased loyalty, and commitment. Cohesion is really about belonging, so create a team where people belong, and people matter to reduce the risks and costs associated with mental health issues.
Get a team coach in who can help the team focus on building a healthy and connected network to boost their performance and maintain their focus. A key benefit of an mBIT coach is that they can help a team develop great relationships and stress management techniques to boost motivation whenever people need it.
Managing workplace loneliness during these extraordinary times is certainly a challenge; however, by putting these suggestions in place, you will see a happier, healthier workforce. Which, in turn, will improve your workplace culture, increase productivity and enhance overall performance.
If you would like to find out more information on any of the topics mentioned in this article, send Gayle an email.
 Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. By Cacioppo, John T., Fowler, James H., Christakis, Nicholas A. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97(6), Dec 2009, 977-991