Alone in a crowd

Source: Hays Journal Issue 17 - click here for more information and to get your free copy

While we have more ways than ever to connect with each other, workplace loneliness is a daily struggle for many employees. In fact, a study by Future workplaces found that managers and employees spend nearly half of their day communicating via technology, not in person. How can organisations work with staff to ensure nobody feels isolated?

Feeling as though you ‘belong’ is one of our most basic, primitive needs, yet the onset of the digital age has made it easier than ever for employees to hide behind their computer screens and use email as their primary form of communication. But is this making us feel lonely and more detached than ever before?

Professor Sigal Barsade from The Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, says that people can be just as lonely in an office, surrounded by colleagues, as they can working from home five days a week. “Loneliness is a self-constructed assessment that an individual makes, based on their own psychological and social needs,” she notes.

Barsade, co-author of the report Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance (a study of 672 employees and 114 supervisors, published in December 2018), says that loneliness isn’t related to age or gender but depends largely on someone’s outlook or perspective. Furthermore, an employee doesn’t need to have a large group of colleagues to connect with to prevent them from feeling lonely. Just one co-worker who they have a good bond with could be enough to stave off loneliness.

One of the main issues, however, is that loneliness was found to be what Barsade describes as “self-reinforcing,” that is, it can become the norm and can make people become sensitive, distrustful and socially inept. “The paradox is that people who are lonely are often the ones who seem the most aloof and least likely to reach out to others,” she says.

Crucially, this sense of loneliness and detachment has a direct impact on performance, engagement and wellbeing.

“The greater the sense of loneliness, the lower the performance and the more likely the employee is to take time off sick,” says Barsade. “The results also show that co-workers can recognise this loneliness and see it hindering team effectiveness.”

She explains that simply understanding loneliness at work can be a significant issue for many employers, yet is one of the first steps in overcoming it. “Just having one good-quality connection with one colleague or your manager can keep loneliness at bay, but they need to have the right working environment and company culture to foster this,” she notes. Ensuring remote workers and home workers come into the office once a week and are kept up to date with everything that’s going on is also important.

Ultimately, HR professionals need to recognise that loneliness is not an individual problem. “They should consider it to be an organisational problem that needs to be addressed, both for the employees’ sake and that of the organisation,” says Barsade.

Identifying issues

But how can employers spot loneliness issues in their business? David Price, CEO of wellbeing provider Health Assured, says: “Managers may notice that an employee’s productivity is down, or that certain members of staff are reserved and are not taking part in both social and work-related conversations and activities. There may also be instances when the employee is rude to their colleagues or members of the public, or starts to get a bad reputation among their co-workers.”

Loneliness, says Angela O’Connor, CEO of consultancy The HR Lounge, is a major issue for many workers. “Detachment has an impact, not only on performance but also on confidence, leading to reductions in engagement and performance. It can also lead to increases in turnover where staff seek more meaningful work.”

If you are seeing higher turnover, less engagement, less innovation and less productivity, you may have a detachment problem, says O’Connor. “We can all think of times when having a few friends at work was the factor that made us enjoy the job, share problems and find common ground. Discussing the reality of roles with staff and sharing stories of how other staff find ways to connect can be really helpful.”

However, Ian Adams, Director of Membership and Stakeholder Engagement at NHS Resolution, says that loneliness shouldn’t always be viewed as a negative. “I think it comes down to the individual and their working style. What might make one person feel lonely might benefit another,” he says. “Some people might prefer working on their own, without distractions, and actually relish the solitude, especially when channelling their creativity.”

Understanding impact

While the study by Barsade established that workers in an office could be just as susceptible to loneliness, the change in our working habits, with more than two million people in the UK now working remotely, is also a significant contributing factor.

Brian Hall, Chief Operating Officer at health and wellbeing provider BHSF, says the option to work from home is one of the most highly valued employee benefits and can be the defining factor when it comes to staying with an organisation.

“There are many advantages to working from home: avoiding a lengthy or stressful commute, the flexibility to work around other commitments, plus the peace and quiet to concentrate on an important task,” he acknowledges. “But spending long periods of time alone can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness.”

Humans are social creatures and although we might enjoy working from home for periods of time, we also need regular interaction, Hall says. “In our recent survey of home workers, we asked them how working from home made them feel. The most frequent responses were ‘free’ and ‘in control’, but about a quarter also reported feeling ‘isolated’, ‘remote’ and ‘lonely’. While many people appreciate being able to manage their work in a way that fits in with their life, there is also a need to feel part of a team and connected to others.”

So how can organisations help those working remotely? Firstly, says Barsade, they must recognise that loneliness exists and is a real issue. “HR professionals need to realise that they have to pay attention to this and that it’s not just the employee’s problem,” she explains.

She adds that organisational culture is a significant contributing factor, and that organisations need to look at ways of adopting a more inclusive, emotional and cognitive culture that endorses and promotes ‘companionate love’ – affectionate, caring relationships between co-workers.

This can be fostered by small gestures, she explains. “It’s the five-minute morning chat you have with someone, for instance. It serves as a buffer to loneliness and brings people together.”

Finding the cause

Of course, it’s not just changes to where we work that can have an effect. Josh Graff, UK Country Manager & VP EMEA at LinkedIn, says the proliferation of technology in the workplace has had a revolutionary effect on the way we work. “Businesses can crunch and share information faster and connect teams more easily than ever before,” he notes. “It has also given professionals more flexibility in how and where they do their job and can do amazing things for productivity if it’s used in the right way.”

Being constantly connected can, however, make it harder for us to switch off. “LinkedIn’s research among 2,000 UK adults showed that, even while on holiday, a quarter of Brits were unable to relax without checking emails on their smartphone,” Graff says. “This is why many companies now have a greater focus on improving their employees’ wellbeing.”

Robert Hicks, Group HR Director of employee engagement company Reward Gateway, says it can be more natural for younger workers to feel part of an online community than other colleagues.

“I think the younger generations are fully switched on, the ‘always-connected generation’. They see online as their home, so working remotely will not be different for them,” he notes. “They grew up creating teams and groups who play video games together, and so are used to talking, planning and connecting without being together in person.

“For folks like me, we did not have that, but we all use Skype, Hangouts or even WhatsApp to talk and video call, and as that increases, so will our understanding of how we can engage these workers more effectively. We are all on the same path, using the same tools in work, and that it is pretty amazing.”

But Price says that, although younger workers may be more familiar and comfortable with the online virtual world, it could actually make them lonelier. “Some younger workers may use a virtual world as a way of escaping the real world, which can be the cause of increased loneliness. A workforce that is over-reliant on technology in the working environment can also miss out on developing key communication skills that other workers may have, such as how to have difficult conversations face to face, empathy and an ability to read body language,” he notes.

This over-reliance on technology can ultimately lead workers to become disillusioned and lonely in their job through the lack of face-to-face interaction, he adds, so employers should try to ensure they have digital disconnects and time away from their screens.

“While there is no legal obligation for companies to enforce a digital disconnect, it is advisable that steps are taken to encourage workers to come away from their computers and interact with colleagues. Examples of ways to encourage colleague interaction include holding meetings to discuss potential social activities that take into account diverse interests, having a public eating area so employees can socialise during breaks, and arranging the office so that it is more open.”

Hurting health

Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, says loneliness and feeling isolated isn’t a mental health problem but can be a contributing factor. “Feeling lonely can contribute to developing things like anxiety and depression, while people living with mental health problems are more likely to feel lonely,” she notes. “If you’re feeling low or anxious, you might feel like withdrawing from those around you – such as your colleagues or manager – and it can be difficult to reach out to others, especially in a working environment.”

Work has a huge impact on mental health, Mamo explains. “If, for example, there is a lack of internal communication or if staff are often required to work on their own, you can see why, when left unsupported, employees may experience a deterioration in their health and changes to their performance. That’s why it’s really important that employers take an active role in helping employees stay well and supporting staff when they need it – as well as looking after themselves.”

Prioritising employee wellbeing is essential, Mamo adds. “By actively encouraging staff to talk – with other colleagues, line managers or their HR department – it can help mitigate risks of disconnect or isolation.”

At Reward Gateway, for example, they hold meetings to bring everyone across the organisation together. Hicks says: “We run the ‘all hands meetings’ to bring everyone together, and we also record the meetings so that anyone who can’t attend can watch it later. It allows people to openly discuss concerns and any current issues they have.”

Taking action

So what can employers do to help tackle loneliness? To start with, they must create an inclusive and accepting working environment, says Donna Miller, European HR Director at car rental company Enterprise Holdings. “It’s about giving employees the freedom to make decisions about what works for them – whether it’s working in a busy team or in a quieter environment or a mix of the two,” she notes.

Enterprise also tries to involve homeworkers, those who aren’t in the office every day and those with alternative work arrangements. “Our business support team is primarily comprised of homeworkers,” says Miller. “Though dispersed throughout the country, the team conducts meetings via Skype and training sessions are held via a connected online platform, so employees can see their colleagues as well as the facilitator.”

It’s essentially about using technology to make people feel connected rather than disconnected, she adds. “We always try to invite remote workers to meetings on different days each week, to give every team member the opportunity to attend. We remind people that being considerate of colleagues and thinking of others is a deliberate act – you need to remember to do it.”

“Tackling loneliness means prioritising employees’ wellbeing,” Miller says. “We offer employee assistance programmes that provide additional support for employees who prefer to speak to someone not directly linked to their day-to-day work. We have set up internal outlets such as our charity, diversity and wellness committees, which encourage office-based employees to build connections and network with colleagues. These groups are extremely important, as they allow employees to get involved in something that matters to them, while meeting colleagues from different departments who share similar interests.”

Ultimately, including people so they feel engaged and comfortable at work is a daily practice that requires conscious effort. “Like any practice, the more you reach out to people, the greater the rewards,” concludes Miller.