Only the lonely: how employers can help beat isolation at work

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Remote working is great and so is the technology that makes it possible. But what about face-to-face human interaction? We need that too. Here, Daniela Korn from Sheridans Employment and Business Immigration Group looks at how employers can help staff to combat feelings of loneliness at work.

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Daniela Korn, a Partner at Sheridans

The buzz word in the world of employee engagement over the past decade or so has got to be ‘flexibility.’ Great emphasis has been placed on providing employees with freedom and capability to work when they wanted, where they wanted and how they wanted.  It promoted equality, diversity and employers have been told that was the gold key to attracting the right sort of entrepreneurial talent.

Employers invested in making this a reality, both in terms of technological capabilities and culture. It seemed a no-brainer.  You could potentially save money and have happier, more productive staff. Indeed over the years, as technology has become more advanced and with WIFI available pretty much everywhere, flexible and remote working is commonplace. That’s a good thing. Right?

The theory is great and empowering. Indeed, for many businesses, operating this way is really one of the key ingredients to success.  But there can be unintended consequences that can negate some of the positivity this freedom provides.  Loneliness. Employees are people. People need human connection and without it, the stats aren’t great.  According to research by the University of California, loneliness reduces longevity by 70%. Its impact on health and life is significantly worse than obesity, smoking and drinking. Aside from the impact on health, the same research also found that an employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organisation.  Naturally, with withdrawal comes reduced productivity. So, what we do know is that it’s bad for health and bad for productivity. We should probably take it seriously.

The water cooler conversation

With the 9 to 5 model, daily interaction is part and parcel.  The infamous water cooler may be perceived to be an HR nightmare in terms of wasted work time, office banter, rumour circulation and the like but at least employees are connecting on a human level and we should not underestimate the significance.

Sure, employers need healthy staff, but employees who feel they belong to an organisation because they feel connected are more productive as a result. Enabling an individual to feel they belong will rest on a number of elements such as an employer’s culture and core values but they need to be living and breathing and not just laminated.  It’s the people who are key in ensuring that the sense of belonging permeates through to the workforce.

So how can employers achieve this whilst still retaining the benefits of remote working and flexibility. We recommend that employers take deliberate steps to forge and develop healthy relationships in their workplaces:

Culture 

Creating a culture where people are not expected to leave their emotions behind and focus solely on the professional may feel counter-intuitive but actually may help to boost productivity. Encouraging friendly and approachable interaction is more likely to establish a workplace where individuals feel connected and engaged. As a result the workforce should be less isolated, happier and more productive. In fact, research shows that there is a direct correlation between a ‘belonging’ workforce and share price.

Back to basics

Technology is amazing. Skype, email, facetime, google docs, drop box etc., enable workplaces to be more time efficient. However, if we rely upon these aides exclusively and avoid talking to one another, we are in danger of losing the intangible benefits of human connection and relationship building. Replacing a skype call or an email with a face to face meeting is an important of way of retaining and developing relationships, particularly for staff who predominately work remotely. It may feel forced initially but long term it can be a significant step in creating a sense of belonging.

Organised fun

OK, so the phrase is cringe worthy. But there is a reason why many employers invest heavily in team bonding activities.  They establish connections and form relationships, all of which assist in combating feelings of isolation and loneliness. We are not suggesting blowing your full marketing budget on a luxury ski trip (although if that’s an option, great and can we come?!) but even low-key outings to the pub for a swift lemonade every so often will be a positive step.

Mentoring programme

Loneliness can work its way through the workplace hierarchy. Senior staff members who are perhaps in a different age bracket to the majority of the staff demographic can be at risk of feeling isolated.  Having structures in place such as mentoring schemes where individuals are encouraged to give and receive help freely can assist in establishing bonds that perhaps would not naturally be formed.

Show appreciation

Finding reasons to praise staff has long been advocated as good management.  People who feel appreciated are more likely to feel engaged and connected. This should help to combat feelings of exclusion.

The softer side of employee engagement is now starting to be placed much more firmly on the agenda. Combating loneliness represents one aspect and in our view is well worth the investment. Incentivising employees financially will always have a part of play in general engagement. But by making staff feel connected on a personal level, employers can make a huge contribution not just to their profit margins but also society as a whole. Connected people are happier ones 🙂

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1 COMMENT

  1. Can the loneliness that affects longevity be fixed by water cooler chats and organized fun though? If we’re talking about the level of loneliness that causes addiction and obesity, it is a serious health issue that should be taken care outside of work. Perhaps some work flexibility would allow lonely Bob to tackle that problem. See his therapist in the morning, go for a walk with his dog during lunch time, eat some healthy homemade meals.

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