Is employee loneliness the next pandemic to challenge HR?

When The Beatles wrote Eleanor Rigby, including the lyrics: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”, I suspect they didn’t think that in 2022 organisational psychologists would be using them to suggest that changing work patterns could be leading to a large proportion of employees feeling lonely. Gallup reported that during the pandemic, employees who shifted to working from home or working remotely for the whole time reported the highest percentages of loneliness — in comparison to those whose roles necessitated a hybrid approach, or those who worked fully on site.

I am not one to shy away from talking about my mental health, but talking about loneliness has been more difficult. The sudden shift to working from home highlighted what I valued about work — the social interactions, the time away from caring (and the stresses and anxieties that it brings), and the simple opportunities to have both social and intellectual conversations with like-minded people that could really pick me up when I was having a tough day. As an organisation, IES has been great at trying to keep staff connected — we had virtual team meetings, virtual coffee mornings and quizzes, which I really valued. But when these finished, and the small squares of smiley faces turned into a blank screen, it only further highlighted my sense of isolation.

So, it was not surprising to me (it may have been to the colleagues that witnessed it) that when, after 23 months of working from home, I made my way to the IES head office and got to hug my ridiculously supportive line manager, I burst into tears. I was struck by how much I had missed the office, and how being able to spontaneously interact with those who were in the office that day just lifted my mood, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Research has shown that I was not alone (no pun intended) in feeling like this. Forbes explored the impact that being away from the workplace had for employee mental health, and loneliness and limited social interaction were high on the agenda. For example, it was reported that:

  • Seven in ten employees who worked from home felt more isolated than those working in the office.
  • Workers missed work-based social interactions such as in-person meetings, office celebrations and after work socials.
  • With the absence of in-person events, 63 per cent felt less engaged with their team.
  • Three in five respondents found something lacking in the quality of communication with their co-workers, and 77 per cent agreed that better communication leads to better work culture.

IES’ working from home wellbeing survey also indicated that loneliness was something that employees were feeling. Respondents wrote, “I am feeling lonely, I am really missing seeing colleagues and clients face-to-face”; “It can really become lonely and easy to lose touch. I just don’t feel involved and I feel like I am missing out”; “I just feel lonely and am getting cabin fever. There is just no work atmosphere and it is much harder to talk to colleagues” and “I am missing the collective dimension of work and real interaction with others.” And these are just a few examples.

This is why, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and its theme of loneliness is really important. Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said: “Loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our physical and mental health during the pandemic…our connection to other people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health so we find much better ways of tackling the epidemic of loneliness.”

So, what is the role of work and employers in tackling employee loneliness?

For some, it may be recognising and remembering what the importance of ‘work’ is. As my colleague Stephen Bevan wrote in his 2019 paper: “For most of us, going to work is not just an economic act motivated by the need to earn money. Increasingly it is also a social act, during which we develop relationships, form bonds, explore opportunities for personal growth and share knowledge. Smart employers recognise that, beyond the need to make workplaces congenial places for employees to enjoy their work and get on with their colleagues, they also benefit from creating cultures and working environments where employees can create value through collaborating and building know-how that can benefit the business.”

The challenge now is how can employers and HR get this balance of social interaction and collaboration that benefits both individual wellbeing and business outcomes in a hybrid work environment?

One way through which this can be done is encouraging ‘having a purpose to meet’ — where employees are encouraged to return to the office for a specific team or project meeting, or when their expertise or knowledge is required. This reduces the risk of ‘hybrideeism’ (coming into work for video meetings to prove that employees are working) but allows for social interaction, creativity and knowledge exchange on a project basis to occur. The more these occur, and if well managed, the more positive experiences people have of these, the more chance that individual wellbeing and productivity may increase.

Secondly, relationship building (and maintaining) whilst hybrid working is important. For many organisations this would usually be the job of the line manager, and while they do have a fundamental role in people management (and should be properly supported by HR to do so), there are other mechanisms that workplaces can use. Mentors or a buddy system could be introduced to provide outlets for more ‘relaxed’ interactions between staff, where employees may feel more comfortable to disclose how they are feeling.

Thirdly, creating a culture where psychological safety and wellbeing are high on the agenda. The stigma surrounding mental health still exists, and employees need to feel that if they do disclose, they will be met with an empathetic response, kindness and understanding. Signposting to relevant resources of help should be made available (including EAPs if available), but for many, just knowing that it is ‘good to talk’ is helpful enough.

And lastly — keep communicating. For hybrid working to be successful, frequent, open and honest conversations with both individuals and teams are really important. This may mean that new communication strategies need to be developed so that all individuals feel included in organisational messaging and activities regardless of location.

The mental and physical health consequences of loneliness that could arise from new ways of working is not something that HR and employers should ignore. We may be just (finally) coming out of one pandemic, and if measures are not put in place, we could easily walk into another. Helping employees build connections, can make a significant difference that will have a positive impact on both organisational and individual outcomes.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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