May 9th-15th is Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK and this year’s theme is Loneliness. Loneliness is not considered to be a mental health illness, however it is a contributing factor and a symptom of many mental health conditions. Loneliness in the workplace has been silently and steadily growing over the last decade and has been amplified by the pandemic, mainly due to the rise in remote working. However, it’s not only remote workers who are feeling isolated, workers in the busiest of offices are still feeling lonely and disconnected from their colleagues.
According to Mental Health UK, one in five workers (20%) feel lonely at work on a typical working day, almost a quarter of workers (23%) agreed that feeling lonely at work has affected their mental health, and 46% of workers have experienced loneliness whilst working from home. These are some really worrying figures, especially due to the fact that the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.
So, how can we spot loneliness in the workplace and how can we help?
Signs of Loneliness in the Workplace
It’s not always easy to identify when staff are feeling isolated, lonely, or disconnected from work. These signs could also just be due to social anxiety, shyness, or even introverted tendencies. It’s also increasingly difficult to spot in our remote and hybrid working world as it is even harder to connect with people behind a screen. However, the very idea of looking out more for our colleagues and questioning disconnection is a positive step in changing the way we tackle loneliness at work. Here are a few signs to look out for;
- Struggling to cope with workloads and the demands of the job – If a usually reliable colleague is struggling with their work or is producing work that is not up to their usual standard, it’s time to check why.
- Taking regular sickness and holiday days – If one of your colleagues has been taking a lot of time off recently this could be a sign of them not being able to cope with work. This is tricky though as they could be taking time off for a number of reasons but it’s always worth checking in on a colleague just in case.
- Not communicating and interacting with others – You may spot that a colleague is not chatting with people as much as they usually do or their overall behavior has changed. They may seem disconnected from the team and are not their usual selves.
- Showing a lack of interest in decisions or team projects – If someone is not contributing as much as as usual or is avoiding team meetings all together then this could be a red flag.
- Uninterested in developing their career – If one of your colleagues seems uninterested in conferences or classes that would help them do their job more efficiently, this could be a sign that they are disconnecting from work.
- Avoids Work Social Events – There are many reasons why a colleague might not attend work social events, however if they continually don’t participate this could signal a disconnect and withdrawal from the team.
What Can we do to Help Combat Loneliness in the Workplace?
I asked our HR manager, Laura, a few questions about loneliness in the workplace and what advice she would give to businesses in tackling the issue and also what help she would give to anyone feeling isolated at work;
What role does HR play in helping reduce workplace isolation and loneliness?
It is important for the HR team and the Line Manager to understand their team’s characteristics to identify if there is a potential area for concern which might need to be discussed further. An example of this is that a colleague always attends a rugby training session but has not mentioned any highlights for a period of time and you have noticed they are not their usual self.
How can organisations encourage meaningful interactions and connections between employees?
Having an open and honest approach amongst your colleagues will establish trust and an opening for communication.
Provide education and guidance to Managers and Senior Team Leaders, allowing enough people within the company for an individual to approach should they feel comfortable in doing so.
Create awareness of loneliness and isolation through posters and articles on a staff page or readily available in the staff room for team members to read.
Hold team social events to get everyone together from different departments and allow team members to socialise outside their different groups of colleagues.
How important do you feel workplace culture is in a sense of belonging?
Personally, I feel workplace culture is paramount within a company for staff members to feel recognised and valued at work. If the employee feels they have a sense of belonging in a company, they are less likely to feel isolated or lonely.
The culture should be inviting staff to share their thoughts and have a voice within the business, knowing they are not going to be reprimanded for discussing their opinion.
What advice would you give to anyone who’s feeling isolated or lonely at work?
Have the strength and courage to speak up and tell a family member, colleague or friend.
Look at any local groups you can join in the area (walking, running, networking)
Learn a new hobby which will allow you to meet new people.
Identify a list of achievements you would like to do in the future which involve socialising.
Speak with a life coach who can build your confidence up in one to one sessions.
Social media is not always real, take a break and focus on you!
As humans, we need interaction with others in order to feel a sense of belonging. Social connections have a positive impact on our well-being and help to reduce stress and encourage trust. Through communication and understanding we can all help each other feel considered and cared for. If you feel a colleague is struggling and are not quite themselves, ask them if they’re ok. Then ask them again. By asking twice and not taking ‘fine’ as a final answer, this might just open the dialogue needed to help and support them.