A 2017 report suggested that loneliness could be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
I find this statistic staggering, but the evidence is there to support it. With loneliness affecting over nine million people in the UK, it is becoming a serious problem.
Why is this relevant to employers? Well, on a whole host of levels, employers can provide significant solutions to the issue. The aforementioned report, by a commission set up by the murdered MP Jo Cox, states that loneliness is a “generational challenge” which will only be addressed by all of us – employers, individuals, governments, families and communities – all pulling together.
Start with culture
We need to start with our organisational culture. If we think about the people who come to work for us, the culture they walk into can make or break their day in terms of the interactions they have with others. By fostering a culture of inclusivity, of communication, of supportiveness, we can make a substantial difference to those employees who perhaps have very few people around them in their home life.
It isn’t rocket science. If we create a culture where people can talk openly, ask for help and fail without fear, then we will counterbalance any isolation they might experience at home. If we create the reverse, we are not only failing to help solve the issue, we are actually exacerbating it.
Consider our introverts
As part of that process, we need to take into consideration the needs of our quieter employees. We know that society is built around extroverts, yet it is typically our introverts who find it hardest to ask for help. There are also our non-neurotypical employees, individuals who may struggle to conform with the usual social constructs. If we are not careful, we further isolate these individuals rather than providing them with the appropriate channels of support.
Organising social events at work can be a great way to help employees build closer networks, but we need to bear in mind the paradox that it will be some of our loneliest employees for whom the thought of socialising with a large group will seem impossible. It can also run the risk of exacerbating loneliness, where, for example, you have employees who are unable to socialise outside of work because of caring responsibilities. Consider both the timing and the nature of the social events you arrange. Not everyone wants to go down the pub on a Friday night after work, but by opening up, for example, a series of lunchtime clubs or events, you start to make those social gatherings accessible to everyone, not just those who want to or are able to socialise outside of the working day.
(There's more on creating a great employee experience for your introverted employees here!)
We also need to consider the rising trend towards increased remote working. The percentage of employees working from home some or all of the time is steadily increasing, and this seems certain to continue. Where employees are unable to build those face-to-face connections, we should consider the judicious use of technology to provide alternative forums for them to socialise. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that employees who work remotely need only to communicate on business matters. The importance of creating those “water-cooler moments” for remote workers is well documented, to maximise opportunities for employees to speak informally and build their own social networks.
At the same time though, we do need to ensure that we are not spoon-feeding people. Part of the solution to tackling loneliness is about equipping our employees with the tools to help themselves. We start by creating a culture where people are unafraid to speak out… but then it is about helping individuals to help themselves. If we are not careful, we run the risk of infantilising employees. Instead, we need to be empowering them to take control of the situation. The self-esteem boost which is gleaned from such can be a vital first step on the road to addressing the root causes and starting to build more social relationships.
Wellbeing and self esteem
As employers, we must start to consider loneliness under the wellbeing umbrella, and put in place wellbeing activities and interventions designed to boost employee self-esteem and facilitate the building of connections and relationships. Loneliness and poor mental health often go hand-in-hand. By encouraging employees to prioritise their mental health, and take proactive action when this starts to deteriorate, we are heading off the problem of loneliness before it has truly become an issue.
Loneliness is often triggered by a significant life event, such as a bereavement or ill health. Again, if we encourage a culture where employees feel able to speak openly about such matters, and where line managers can refer their team members for specialist support, we are able to intervene in the early stages to ensure that an appropriate support network is in place. The earlier we intervene, the greater the chances that we can prevent that individual from becoming isolated.
An “epidemic of loneliness”
The “epidemic of loneliness” is very real. With an estimated 1.2 million people in the UK suffering from “chronic loneliness”, employers need to ensure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. By prioritising building effective social networks within the workplace, ensuring wellbeing and mental health form a core part of the strategic agenda, and helping our employees to help themselves and respond to the early warning signs, we can make a real – and vital – difference.
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