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Managing loneliness in the workplace

12 April 2022

Loneliness is affecting more of us than ever, including in the workplace. As well as affecting mental health, loneliness can have a negative impact on work performance. Here we look at what you can do as a manager or business leader to combat loneliness in your workplace.

Why do people feel lonely?

If someone feels lonely, it means they’re not getting the level of social interaction that they need. This varies from person to person. Some people prefer their own space, while others thrive on lots of social contact. You can feel lonely even if you’re working in a busy environment surrounded by people. It’s not about the number of contacts you have, but the quality of those relationships.

working from home

What causes loneliness at work?

When people feel lonely at work, it can be for various reasons. These can be unrelated to work, but with the feelings having been brought into the workplace. Or it could be something to do with the person’s work situation. Loneliness is closely related to the quality of our relationships. So if you feel lonely at work, you might not feel connected to your workmates or able to relate to them.

Particular situations and life events can also be triggers for loneliness. These include:

  • starting a new job or changing roles within the same organisation
  • working part-time
  • working remotely
  • returning to work after a long period of time – such as after maternity or paternity leave, or after illness or bereavement
  • coming up to retirement age

informal meeting

The impact of loneliness at work

Loneliness is difficult for anyone to deal with on an emotional level. It also increases the risk of various physical and mental health problems. But when people feel lonely at work, it can start to affect performance too. And this can have a negative impact both for individuals and employers.

Loneliness has been associated with:

  • lower quality of work
  • less engagement
  • less commitment to work
  • lower productivity
  • more time off work

The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5 billion a year. This relates to increased staff turnover and lower wellbeing and productivity, as well as sickness absence. Tackling loneliness in the workplace can help create a happier and more productive workforce.

colleagues laughing

How to manage loneliness in the workplace

The best way to combat or prevent loneliness in the workplace, is by encouraging high-quality relationships at work. At an organisational level, it’s important to embed loneliness awareness into existing policies and practices on wellbeing and mental health. It’s also essential to take measures to understand the size of the problem and who may be at risk.

As a manager, there are many steps you can take to deal with and prevent loneliness. These include the following.

  • Take the time to really get to know and understand your team. This will help you to find out about events in their lives that may trigger loneliness, as well as recognise changes in behaviour. Prioritise one-to-ones and avoid cancelling these.
  • Encourage openness in your team and lead by example. Initiate conversations about loneliness within your team and be prepared to support employees when they need it. Know what resources are available within your organisation and where to signpost them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes and Human Resources programmes.
  • Create opportunities for team working, collaboration and information-sharing when possible. Having a shared goal and direction can help people to connect and build stronger bonds.
  • Organise activities that people can join if they wish. Examples include workshops, team building activities and social outings. You can’t force people to become friends, but you can give them the time and opportunity to develop more meaningful relationships.
  • Have a ‘buddy’ or mentor system, that people can connect with for both personal and work-related issues.
  • Make sure remote workers have a range of channels for communication. Schedule time for informal interaction as well as work-related interactions.

Sources

1. Employees are lonelier than ever. Here’s how employers can help. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/06/employees-are-lonelier-than-ever-heres-how-employers-can-help, 9 June 2021.

2. Employers and loneliness.
Gov.uk. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employers-and-loneliness/employers-and-loneliness#loneliness-and-employment--what-we-know, published 8 May 2021.

3. About loneliness. Mind. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/, published July 2019.

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