Why employers should address loneliness in the workplace

Home-working, a recent promotion or increased use of email can all be causes of social isolation at work.
Home-working, a recent promotion or increased use of email can all be causes of social isolation at work.

With many employees feeling socially isolated at work, there are many ways employers can help prevent loneliness in the workplace, says Karen Matovu, head of mental health training for managers at Validium.

Annual wellbeing programmes are likely to address known health risks, such as smoking, poor diet and physical inactivity. What is less well known is that loneliness is a serious threat to health, comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the UK campaign for loneliness launched in 2011.

Not only do prolonged feelings of loneliness significantly increase the risk of developing dementia (Holwerda et al, 2013), but it also increases the risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32% (Valtorta et al, 2016), reducing life expectancy by seven years (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015).

When we’re lonely, the stress hormone cortisol floods our bodies, shortening our breath, increasing our heart rate and tensing our muscles. Prolonged feelings of loneliness exert a physical toll on our bodies, as well as being a difficult emotion to live with.

With many employees feeling socially isolated at work, whether due to home-working, a recent promotion or increased use of email in place of direct conversation, there is much that employers can do to address the issue.

Destigmatise loneliness in the workplace

Before her tragic death in June 2016, MP Jo Cox spent a year gathering detailed evidence about the causes of social isolation for a major commission into loneliness, which colleagues have now launched in her memory. Among the findings is research showing that although one-fifth of the population say they are always or often lonely, two-thirds feel uncomfortable admitting it (Asthana, 2016).

For any workplace initiative designed to tackle loneliness to succeed, the first priority must be to destigmatise loneliness.

Although employers have done much to normalise mental health issues, loneliness remains a taboo subject.

Not least because of the perception that you must live alone, be a “loner” or have something wrong with you. In reality, lonely people are no less attractive, intelligent or popular (Cacioppo, 2010).

Instead, what characterises loneliness is a sense of isolation, due to relationships not meeting social needs.

Employers have a valuable role to play, putting appropriate support in place and ensuring everyone at work has positive opportunities for interacting with others.

Create social interaction

Office design can help or hinder social interaction. If desks are fenced off or if people are forced to sit with their backs to each other, they will start to feel isolated. Creating shared breakout areas, where people are encouraged to take breaks and eat together, instead of eating in isolation at their desk, can help to facilitate social interaction.

Loneliness can also be addressed as part of an integrated wellbeing strategy that encourages people to get healthy together.

Other employers are focusing on their homeworkers, who are at particular risk of loneliness due to their lack of social support and tendency not to take breaks. Resilience training can be used to help them understand the relationship between any “low mood” and how they’re planning their day.

The business benefits are well-connected employees who are not only more engaged and more productive, but an investment in “social capital” – the relationships and networks within a business – as a means of overcoming business challenges and enabling the organisation to share knowledge and remain agile.

Managers in particular will benefit from being invited to work on real-life business challenges, as part of a small team with other managers.

Boost empathy skills

If there is not sufficient funding to develop everyone, more and more organisations are recognising the benefits of at least developing managers to deal with mental health as part of their overall people responsibilities.

A key part of this is educating them to listen, without jumping in to give advice or share their own story.

For example, if an employee expresses sadness at going home to an empty house every evening and never speaking to anyone else over the weekend, it might be tempting for the manager to start dishing out advice, such as: “You should take up a hobby or join a dating site – it worked for my sister.”

Not only might this be the wrong remedy for that person at that time, it is much more powerful if the manager can instead ask the employee more questions, drawing out all the information, before summarising the issues they are facing.

The manager can then ask the employee what they think they could do to enhance things, or at least improve how they feel about the situation.

This process serves two objectives. First, by helping the employee to self-solve, instead of attempting to give out a solution, the manager can encourage the employee to take control of their situation.

Second, the simple act of talking and being listened to will increase the employee’s self-esteem and confidence, while reducing any feelings of isolation.

If the employee doesn’t want to confide in their manager, they can be directed towards professional help, such as the counselling provided as part of an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Prolonged loneliness can result from a life change, such as starting a family, children leaving home, a relationship break-up, bereavement, or even a promotion that moves someone to a new location or distances them from their former peers.

By keeping an eye on how well someone affected by these changes is sustaining social connections and by deploying the active listening skills, managers can spot people in need of extra emotional support before an acute loneliness problem is allowed to develop into something more serious.

Karen Matovu is head of mental health training for managers at Validium, a provider of psychological health, EAP and trauma services.

References

Asthana A (2016). “Cox campaign to tackle loneliness lives on”. The Guardian, 28 December 2016.

Hawkley LC and Cacioppo JT (2010). “Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms”. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol.40, pp.218-227.

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D (2015). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science”. Association for Psychological Science, vol.10(2), pp.227-237.

Holwerda TJ, Deeg DJH, Beekman ATF,  van Tilburg TG, Stek ML, Jonker C, Schoevers RA (2013). “Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL)”. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, vol.85, pp.133-134.

Valorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B (2016). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies”. Heart (BMJ journal).

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