The wider adoption of flexible working practices allows for people to carve out more time for family and friends, but has this change impacted how we form connections in the workplace?
Colin McKay at TMM Recruitment, has reflected on this question, identifying what causes feelings of isolation at work and what practices an employer can implement to counteract this.
Loneliness affects millions of people every year. Not only can it be felt in our personal lives, but our professional lives as well. It’s such a serious public health challenge that a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in 2018 to address the issue.
A Mental Health UK study found that as many as one in five people feel lonely in the workplace on a typical working day.
While feeling lonely is not a mental health condition in and of itself, it can exacerbate other mental health issues or bring on feelings of anxiety. Close to a quarter of workers (23%) believe that their feelings of loneliness in the workplace are having a negative impact on their mental health.
Results from a 2023 British Red Cross study into loneliness in the workplace found that 84% of onsite workers agreed that they felt a close connection with the people in their shared workspace, compared to 44% of homeworkers surveyed who said the same.
While this demonstrates that sharing a physical space can improve the chances of an employee feeling a positive connection with their coworkers, in isolation this does not limit the risk of loneliness.
A large part of an organisation’s culture is formed by how its employees interact with each another. Being encouraged to make connections, collaborate while working and while doing so experience an 'in the trenches' mentality can go a long way towards making a worker feel included.
A worker’s individual relationship with their manager was also found to be a potential cause of feelings of loneliness, as 54% of workers aged 25-34 in the study stated that a ‘lack of contact time with their line manager or senior leader’ could negatively affect their wellbeing at work.
Loneliness is not just an issue for one type of worker. Workplace loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It is felt by people all levels of a business.
While 39% of workers aged 18-24 stated they felt lonely at work, this is also felt in more senior positions, with another study finding that 32% of senior managers often, or always, feel lonely.
Working to eliminate any feelings of isolation in the workplace is the right thing to do, and there is also a business case for it.
Loneliness costs UK employers £2.5 billion annually, according to a report from the New Economics Foundation. This is made up of staff turnover costs and time lost due to lower productivity, as well as increases in sick days and mental health related absences.
So, what can be done to reduce any feelings of loneliness in the workplace?
53% of workers stated that they felt they had a lack of time or capacity within working hours to discuss their feelings with others or that their workplace culture did not encourage workers to open up on their feelings in the workplace.
A direct remedy for this would be to foster a workplace culture of ownership and inclusivity, particularly one that encourages positive social engagement and relationship building with team members. Celebrating teamwork, recognising and rewarding people for their work successes, social events and team building days can improve the wellbeing of a collective workforce.
Employees should also feel that their thoughts and opinions matter. Scheduled 1:1 time where the line manager listens and encourages open and honest discussions promotes a sense of being respected, having a voice, and performing meaningful work.
While listening is vital, a problem shared is a problem halved after all, it is important that an organisation implements change based on any feedback received. This can shift an organisation’s culture and allow its employees to feel both seen and heard.
Many workplaces are now introducing mental health first aiders (I’m one at TMM Recruitment), employees who act as the first point of contact for someone who is experiencing a mental health issue.
Mental health first aiders, like the traditional first aiders in a workplace, receive training to ensure they can provide the correct support to those around them and encourage employees to speak out if they are struggling, because they have a designated person to raise issues with.
Loneliness awareness training for managers and mentors is important too because effective mental health discussions require an environment of trust, where the employee has a sense of security that reassures them to share their feelings.
Loneliness is a real problem in our society, both in the workplace and in the community at large – you’ve probably watched the Charlie’s bar Christmas video which so poignantly captures the message of loneliness and comfort.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, but organisations can take several steps to ensure that employees, across all levels of seniority, do not feel alone while at work.