Let’s talk loneliness – how to nurture a more connected workplace

Let’s talk loneliness – how to nurture a more connected workplace

When you think of someone who’s lonely, who do you imagine? Perhaps an old person, isolated from family, a child sat apart in the playground, or a single parent with no-one to confide in. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine – perhaps you are lonely.

Most of us have felt lonely at some point. According to the Marmalade Trust, the UK charity dedicated to raising awareness of the issue, loneliness is a natural human emotion. It can be triggered by a whole host of things, from losing a loved one to feeling or looking different to our peers, being a carer or even missing your colleagues.

In truth, there is no stereotypical lonely person. According to latest research, one in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time, and one in five hide their loneliness in front of others. Age, it seems, is irrelevant; loneliness among 18-24-year-olds is worryingly high, with almost 1 in 4 students feeling lonely most or of all of time.

Work can be a lonely place

Perhaps unsurprisingly, loneliness in the workplace is also on the rise, a trend intensified by the COVID pandemic. While remote and hybrid working have given us more flexibility, this has often been at the expense of human connections. Last year, three in five people (60%) reported feeling lonely at work and in a recent survey of 2,000 managers and employees, more than 40% said they feel lonely either “always” or “very often,” are not engaged in their work and have a “high need” for social connection.(1)

Our need for connections is part of being human. Loneliness is a prompt for us to find these links or improve them. This is particularly pertinent in a work setting because it’s well documented that a sense of belonging promotes knowledge share, improves retention rates and increases motivation, productivity, and morale.

Loneliness doesn’t just impact individuals, it’s also bad for business. Research by the Co-Op and New Economics Foundation found that loneliness costs UK employers over 2.5 billion pounds a year from increased sick days and time off to care for others, as well as lower productivity and staff retention levels.

So how can you ensure you keep loneliness at bay in the workplace? The answer lies in engaging your employees through communication and connection to each other and to your organisation. In other words, let them know that their presence matters to your company. Here’s how.

Get started early

There’s no better place to start than at the very beginning. Take a critical look at your onboarding procedures to ensure they¬ encourage good connections. Why not assign newcomers an onboarding partner or buddy to help them find their feet? Choose someone who’s not in their immediate team, but who they can go to with questions about your work culture, general advice on who’s who and ‘how things are done round here’. It gives them an immediate and valuable connection across the wider business. You can also make a point of asking what communication platforms your new hires feel most comfortable using and what things that would make them feel part of company culture.

Make work communal

Do your work practices promote connections or encourage isolation? This is obviously relevant if you are operating a remote or hybrid workforce, but even a busy office can be isolating if the culture isn’t right. Create opportunities for interaction – from committees to focus groups, volunteer programmes to peer recognition programmes to name a few. You might need to consider a change in work times or days, ensuring employees come into the office more, or having smaller remote team meetings to allow for more interaction. One suggestion that appealed to us is setting up a work book club: choose a work-related book that employees can read and then discuss in groups. It’s social and hopefully instructive too.

Make work social

It’s not only about working together, but spending downtime together too. Regular social events to encourage deeper personal connections are proven to raise levels of engagement and productivity. Lead from the front: take time out to be sociable, have non-work-related conversations, arrange social events that allow people to relax, and spend time getting to know your team away from their desks. By involving different team members in choosing and arranging a range of activities you’ll foster even more meaningful connections.

Focus on wellbeing

We’ve posted before about the many benefits of nurturing wellbeing in the workplace . By taking a holistic view of wellbeing you’re likely to address many of the common causes of loneliness amongst your employees. Alternatively, you could take a more direct approach. “Why not add loneliness to the agenda of a team meeting?” suggests Amy Perrin, founder of the Marmalade Trust. “Or, bring it up in one-to-one sessions with staff… ask them what would help to make them feel more connected at work.” Once you’ve raised awareness of the issue, make sure you signpost the resources and support that your employees might need.

Set the right tone

If you’re talking about loneliness, in person or in your employee comms, use positive or neutral language. It’s all too easy to alienate someone by using negative words. Avoid terms like “suffering” from loneliness or “admitting” to it. Keep it neutral – talking about “experiencing” loneliness and “telling” others can help people feel more comfortable in opening up about their feelings.

Add some canine magic

Pets are therapeutic, and dogs in particular have a unique ability to connect with us. Some universities bring dogs into their libraries and study spaces to reduce stress among their students. We know that it won’t be possible to bring a dog into every workplace, but for those who can, the benefits are well worth it.

But what if you’re feeling lonely at work?

If you’re reading this and experiencing loneliness, try talking about your feelings to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor. If you feel able, talk to your employer too – especially if you think work practices are a contributing factor. Talking in person or on the phone is better than messaging or emailing.

There are also free and confidential listening and support services where you can get help:

• Samaritans – available 24 hours daily. Call 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org

• Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) ¬– call 0800 585858 or message the CALM webchat service

• Shout – text ‘Shout’ to 85258. Shout is a 24/7 UK text messaging service for times when people feel they need immediate support.

• Mind offers peer support groups, where people use their experiences to help each other.

The Marmalade Trust has lots of advice online on dealing with loneliness both for individuals and businesses. Why not start by checking out their three step approach: https://www.marmaladetrust.org/threestepapproachtoloneliness

(1) Study conducted by Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse.