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More than half of UK employees have felt lonely at work. As evidence grows of the associated health risks, we call for businesses to do more to combat loneliness in the workplace.

In January 2018 Theresa May’s government appointed Lesley Crouch as the world’s first minister for loneliness. This was timely, as loneliness had been recognized as a  major societal problem with more than nine million people in the UK saying they are often or always lonely. In itself the acute sense of isolation experienced by people who are lonely, warrants our attention but loneliness is now also known to be a key determinant of health and as such, has become a public health issue. Scientists have known for some time of the links between loneliness and mental health conditions but only more recently have its associations with serious physical illness become apparent. Social isolation has been found to cause cellular changes triggering inflammation that can leave people vulnerable to life threatening conditions like stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

The links between social isolation and loneliness are strong and help explain the prevalence of loneliness among the elderly, particularly those over 75, half of whom live alone. The impact is stark with two fifths of all old people saying that the television is their main form of company. But to view loneliness as an issue primarily facing the elderly, is to misunderstand the breadth of the problem.

A study from the Office of National statistics found that young people between the ages of 16 and 24 were the most likely to report themselves as feeling lonely. Those between the ages of 25 and 34 were also more likely to experience loneliness than the elderly. There are other demographics who are affected in similar proportions; unmarried people, those in poor health and divorcees.

Loneliness as a workplace issue

Significant numbers of these individuals will be working for businesses in the UK. On paper, this would appear to be a good thing as it means they would be enjoying multiple connections at work each day with colleagues and co-workers and also have many opportunities to build and maintain friendships. The reality appears to be rather different. According to research by Mind, more than half of UK employees have felt lonely at work and almost two thirds feel that their workplace isn’t doing enough to address loneliness. Relate found that 42% of employees don’t have a close friend at work. Yet Bright HR found workers aged 16-24 defined workplace enjoyment as “having great colleagues that I spend time with”

Loneliness aggravated by workplace trends

So what has contributed to the prevalence of workplace loneliness?  There are a number of workplace trends that have undoubtedly played a part. One widely applauded development in the modern workplace is the rise of flexible working. It has made a positive difference for the many employees that are juggling complex personal lives with the rigours of demanding jobs. One manifestation of this is home working. A little caution is needed before assuming that the capacity to work from home is an unqualified blessing. Many employees find home working to be an isolating experience, particular where not enough provision has been made for regular contact with their colleague’s and their manager. It’s easy to underestimate how the social dimension of work contributes to our wellbeing.  The 2019 State of the digital workplace report found that 70% of remote employees felt left out of the workplace.

And the problem is likely to grow. Many now work in fields like IT, the biggest job growth area of the last decade, where employees can work from anywhere and that frequently means away from the office. And this is just a foretaste of what lies ahead. The Global Leadership summit predicts that around a third of the global workforce will be working remotely within the next 2 years.

The rise of zero hours contracts and self-employment is another factor that makes the formation of bonds and friendship at work more difficult. A survey carried out by the bank Aldermore found that almost 40% of self-employed people felt lonely since becoming their own boss. Freelance workers often suffer from anxiety and depression as a consequence of spending so much time alone. And hot desking is another example of trends that have seen a gradual erosion of opportunities for people to come together with enough frequency to forge connections.

Employees, especially younger workers, are staying with their employers for a shorter time span and this may be making it harder to build meaningful relationships at work. It could also be that co-workers feel less inclined to invest in relationships that they are increasingly recognising may turn out to be transient.

The cost to business

Loneliness is a workplace problem that was pretty much unheard of 10 years ago and yet it’s not one we can afford to ignore. The costs to businesses are very real, with one study finding that loneliness at work has “a significant influence on employee performance, both in direct tasks, as well as employee team member and team role effectiveness” The Economics Foundation suggests that chronic loneliness has cost employers around £2.5 billion a year owing to its effect on health, productivity and increased staff turnover.

Lonelier workers also experience fewer promotions and lower job satisfaction and it can take a high toll on them psychologically.  But it’s now clear that businesses too incur significant costs. So what steps can companies take to make the workplace a more socially conducive environment for their employees.

Tackling the problem

Being surrounded by others doesn’t necessarily reduce loneliness; people need real connections to feel the difference.

  • Opportunities should be created to bring colleagues together in ways that build personal relationships. That might be achieved through clubs, sports events or evenings out.
  • Shift where possible to more direct one to one communication. It is relatively easy to forego emails in smaller teams where close physical proximity supports face to face conversations. A Harvard Business Review study suggests that “one face to face communication is more successful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth”. Apart from helping build relationships, there is a business benefit too. The quality of understanding is usually better in face to face discussions because the scope for misinterpretation reduces whilst in emails the nuances of meaning can easily be lost.
  • Team events like the Virgin Pulse Global challenge for health and wellbeing are an excellent way of connecting employees from different parts of the business. Initiatives like this, whilst primarily designed to improve physical health can as do wonders for social wellbeing.
  • Encourage collaborative projects, particularly those involving people across different disciplines or functions. This can help build new relationships, create a sense of community, bring people out of their silos and drive productivity too.
  • Walking meetings are a good way to bring people together. It’s a low cost solution that is also a good way to get a health and wellbeing boost.
  • Where employees work mainly from home, ensure that there are regular managerial check-ins but also that employees have ample opportunity to converse with colleagues. Arranging days when otherwise separate employees can come together can make a big difference- nothing beats face-to-face contact for building and maintaining relationships.
  • Also use the technology to bring people together. Video conferencing can help to make people feel more connected than communicating via telephone.

Time to focus on social wellbeing

Many businesses now have wellbeing strategies in place. These often recognise the importance of social wellbeing yet fail to give it the same attention as other wellbeing areas like psychological, financial and physical wellbeing.  Taking steps like those identified above can help broaden and deepen a wellbeing strategy and at the same time address the growing problem of loneliness in the workplace.

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