June 14, 2022
Loneliness is defined as the difficult emotion we experience when our need for meaningful social contact and relationships is not met, and it’s something we’ve all had experience of. Nearly half of the UK population have reported feeling lonely at times, with other research showing that 39 percent say their wellbeing was negatively impacted because they were lonely too. Why people feel lonely can be attributed to many reasons. Humans have a deep need for attention, warmth, and attachment to others. When such relationships end, or if someone finds themselves in an abusive or emotionally non-existent relationship, this can lead to elevated levels of loneliness.
The average person will spend a third of their life at work, so, relying on connections within the workplace is key, but not always an option. Social factors, such feeling a lack of ‘natural fit’ with colleagues or feeling overwhelmed by social situations in the workplace can also increase the risk of loneliness.
The rise of the “internet generation” has also impacted on connectivity and the experience of loneliness. While the internet provides people with an easier way to communicate, people are sometimes replacing more meaningful real-life human contact with more superficial interaction available online. This can make it harder for people to interact in person, with some withdrawing from face-to-face conversations completely, increasing feelings of daily isolation.
It’s clear loneliness has life-changing impacts on the individuals who experience it, but it can also have serious consequences for the businesses at which they are employed.
Loneliness and productivity
As pandemic restrictions eased, many businesses embraced a new operational structure that combined the traditional pre-pandemic office environment with remote work. A hybrid structure does offer employees more flexibility and there have already been several studies suggesting a hybrid work model enhances productivity too.
However, those who are lonely or in prolonged isolation are at risk of the opposite occurring. 12 percent of lonely workers claim more inefficient work quality, poorer engagement, and retention rates in their daily roles.
Employees feeling socially isolated at work could increase absenteeism due to more sick leave and performance difficulties, further compromising an individual’s productivity. There is substantial evidence connecting this lowered performance and decreased drive to achieve could cost the U.K alone £2.5 billion.
What are the long-term physical and emotional impacts of loneliness on employees?
Research shows lack of social connection raises health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and could be more dangerous than obesity. Pro-longed, extreme loneliness has a debilitating impact on emotional wellbeing, increasing anxiety levels and putting a person at a higher risk of depression.
There is also the physiological impact to consider. Chronic loneliness induces a constant state of ‘flight or fight’ stress signalling, which can negatively impact the body’s immune system functioning. According to research, loneliness and social isolation are also associated with an increased risk of heart conditions.
However, while loneliness at work isn’t good, the latest studies suggest that our craving for social interaction is communicated via feelings of loneliness. If employees are experiencing loneliness, it means they are ‘signaling’ this innate, biological need for connection, which in itself is positive where it is acted upon.
As we transition to more hybrid and remote working patterns, it is imperative employers find ways to create inclusive and connected workplace environments where people feel a sense of belonging and feel supported. Not only will this help productivity, but it will also boost happiness levels and help combat feelings of loneliness.
Our own study found that two-thirds of employees are unwilling to raise mental health issues with their employer, it is important companies are equipped to recognise signs of loneliness in others.
The emotional toll of loneliness can be seen in various ways, including reduced social interaction in the office, a decline in appearance and hygiene, or even in the individual’s work performance and output. In remote workers, this may manifest in video meetings or calls. Are they less chatty? Is their voice lower or cracking?
Alternatively, does the individual seem to be craving conversation and contact, or being overly talkative? Changes to behaviour patterns can provide indications as well as an opening to check in with employees about their wellbeing.
Attuned employers can recognise employees presenting signs of loneliness or distress and reach out to them. This could be as simple as asking ‘how are you doing?’ or offering more regular meetings to catch up on their work.
Employers can play a huge role in creating an environment where employees feel a sense of connection and belonging by promoting campaigns which foster connectivity and team building. For employees working in hybrid models, opportunities for connection beyond ‘work focused’ interactions are key.
While meaningful social interaction plays a key role in reducing loneliness, formal wellbeing support can also be invaluable. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert.
Ensure employees are well signposted towards the support on offer, along with guidance and encouragement on how to access the help available. This may be via email to employees, an office huddle or a virtual ‘wellbeing hub’.
It’s important to remember that mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. The biological and hormonal changes in our bodies when we’re stressed, anxious and depressed can impact our physical health, causing nausea, upset stomach and headaches. And injury, illness and disabilities can similarly impact our mood and outlook.
Business leaders can arrange, or raise awareness of, physical health screenings available in the office to uncover any underlying issues among employees.
Employers should be flexible with letting staff factor in opportunities for self-care each day, whether it’s simply stretching at their desk, going for a brisk five-minute walk between meetings or finding time to do a short, guided meditation or breathing exercises.
Similarly, flexibility may mean allowing employees to stagger start and finish times or take longer lunches and catch up on work later in the day. This can see employees meeting friends for coffee or spending more time with family.