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How to tackle worker loneliness

Monday January 25, 2021

The colder and darker months of winter can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. This means different things to different people – but most people agree it’s when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met.  

Feeling lonely isn't a mental health problem in itself, according to the charity MIND, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase the likelihood of feeling lonely, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on mental health, especially if those feelings have lasted a long time.  

Those who have been on furlough for an extended period of time are one group which may have experienced loneliness, but workplaces must recognise that everyone is impacted. The younger generation or those that are at the start of their career may struggle with working from home as they are often more reliant on social interactions with their friends. People who live alone and work from home are also particularly isolated.  

It’s not unusual 

Loneliness in society is on the rise, especially in young people, with over nine million adults saying they are often or always lonely. Social isolation can engender poorer mental and physical health, which harms our wellbeing in the long-term. 

It’s not something that people often talk about, but many experience loneliness at some point in their lives. Common life events like ill-health, going through a relationship break-up, or moving to a new area can lead to feeling isolated and alone. Circumstances can also make people more vulnerable to feeling lonely – for instance being a single parent or carer, or having regular social interactions taken away.   

How to support the workforce 

This year more people have been impacted by loneliness who have never experienced it before – and this has helped to normalise the conversation. HR professionals are likely to find themselves holding more discussions around loneliness, which is a positive step forward to tackling a mental health issue which has been bubbling under the surface for too long.   

Encouraging workers to increase social interaction can be challenging. Meeting new people or building deeper connections with existing friends or acquaintances can be incredibly intimidating, so it is important to not put pressure on workers to fix everything immediately. There are also continually changing government guidelines to consider.  

The most important thing is building up confidence by starting small. Here are a few conversation starters to help employees tackle their feelings of loneliness going into the winter months. 

Park life 

Being stuck in the house, not seeing another soul, can increase feelings of loneliness. Try to encourage workers to take a walk in the park and just take note of their surroundings. A smile from a stranger is a small thing – but it increases camaraderie and the feeling that we are all in this together. When it is possible within the guidelines, park walks could be organised with small groups of people who live locally to one another.  

Try to open up 

An individual may feel like they know plenty of people, but what is actually wrong is that they don't feel close to them, or they don't give them the care and attention they need. In this situation, it might help to open up about how they feel to friends and family or, if that’s not possible, encourage workers to talk with a counsellor about how they’re feeling.  

It is important for managers to check in with employees regularly to gauge how they are feeling. This way they can accurately support workers feeling lonely and boost engagement at work.  

New connections 

When working from home, everyone is disconnected. If feelings of loneliness are induced by a lack of satisfying social contact, workers could try to speak with more, or with different, people. One option is for workers to join a socially distanced club or online class based on their interests – e.g. crafts, cooking, learning a new language or sport. Attendees will immediately have something in common with others taking the class and having an activity to focus on removes the pressure to socialise.  

Employee Assistance Programmes  

Many employers provide benefits programmes which encompass a variety of mental wellbeing resources. This could include an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – a confidential service providing people with a 24/7 helpline where employees can speak with a trained advisor and get actionable advice. EAPs offer advice on a huge range of complex issues and can be there when all that’s required is someone to share a problem with in the small hours.  

This winter will be a challenging time for many people and loneliness needs to be tackled head-on. HR teams can play a supportive role by facilitating virtual coffee mornings, cross-functional virtual events and training for managers on how to have good virtual conversations. This will help to support employees’ mental and social wellbeing – both inside and outside of work. 

Article published in HRZone on 25th January 2021 

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