I was writing about ‘loneliness’ back in 2018 – before Covid and mass remote working was amongst us and before the global energy crisis and inflation started pressing in on people’s lives.
Despite a lot of parliamentary gesturing and the setting up of the government’s Tackling Loneliness Network, the Office for National Statistics has revealed that even after the lifting of social restrictions, more people are now chronically lonely than before the pandemic and younger people are still more likely to report feeling lonely than older people.
May gave us Mental Health Awareness Week and a special focus on loneliness and earlier this month it was Loneliness Awareness Week with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport encouraging people to ‘Lift someone out of loneliness‘ as part of the Better Health Every Mind Matters campaign. These are all worthy initiatives, helping to bring attention to such a key issue, but frequently it’s businesses that are being left to tackle the negative impact loneliness can have on the people they employ. Not only having to handle the long-term effects on people’s mental and physical wellbeing, but managing the negative impact loneliness can have on business productivity and staff retention. Recent research estimates that loneliness costs UK employers a shocking £2.5 billion every year.
So what practical things can managers do to help prevent team members feeling isolated and alone?
- Active listening – one of the most underrated management skills has to be active listening. Taking time to listen and find out about team members, their interests and concerns, their life outside work, builds a more supportive relationship and helps avoid the build-up of issues and problems that can then impact on someone’s wellbeing and performance.
- Avoid assumptions – loneliness is subjective and although associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, will not affect everyone in the same way. Being able to ask team members how they are feeling and creating a safe space for them to speak freely with managers, helps build important psychological safety.
- Watch terminology – it can be easy to unintentionally stigmatise loneliness, by using words like ‘suffering’ from loneliness or ‘admitting’ to loneliness. Alternatively, using words like ‘experiencing’ loneliness or ‘telling’ someone about being lonely helps to normalise the conversation about loneliness and can encourage people to open up about it.
- Small gestures – in our busy lives it can be easy to forget the little things in an employee’s life – a birthday, a difficult anniversary, or how they take their coffee. Yet it is an important part of helping make people feel valued, acknowledged and appreciated.
- Social time – pressurised deadlines and heavy workloads can push the scheduling of social activities down the agenda, but social interactions are especially important when remote or hybrid working. However, social events require careful thought and planning to make them appropriate and inclusive and employees should be involved in the decision making. Even including non-work-related conversations at the end of a team meeting or asking people about their day can be beneficial.
- Collaboration – regardless of where someone is on the extroversion/introversion spectrum, humans are social beings and can benefit from joint interactions, so encouraging meaningful collaborations, team projects or even a buddy system for new employees can help people feel more connected and less alone.
Whilst researching cost-effective ways to help some of my clients, I also came across the Tackling Loneliness Hub which is a useful online platform that provides a learning and exchange space on the subject of loneliness and draws together research and resources in one place, for those who would like to find out more.