Julie Tucker
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How to combat workplace loneliness

Feelings of loneliness and isolation at work are on the increase – creeping up to their highest level since people worked from home during the lockdowns. Employee loneliness in the UK has risen by 11% since January 2022, according to research.

People say they are struggling to “build meaningful connections” with colleagues. Employees’ social life has decreased by a hefty 39% since 2020. Having less money to socialise due to the economic crisis is being cited as one factor.

This is having a negative impact on overall job satisfaction, with 49% saying enjoying camaraderie and a good social life with colleagues benefits their emotional wellbeing, according to a survey by Glassdoor.

What causes workplace loneliness?

Studies show there is no one cause of workplace loneliness. Instead, a combination of factors can lead to feelings of isolation.

The Covid pandemic is still a factor, according to Glassdoor’s study, with employees saying three years after the first lockdowns, their social life has yet to fully recover. Around one-quarter of respondents said companies were “more antisocial” than they were before the pandemic.

People are not socialising due to the cost-of-living crisis, according to data from September 2022, published in The Guardian. Before problems with the economy kicked in, people were going out for meals, drinks, trips to the cinema and round to friends’ houses. Now, employees are lucky to socialise with colleagues, even once or twice a month. Rocketing energy bills, mortgages, rent and shopping expenses have seen people turning down social invitations.

A common comment is that “letting off steam” to colleagues helps make a stressful job bearable. Without the outlet of a social life, employees report their work is “suffering”. Many have started to feel “undervalued” in their job, as they don’t have enough money for “leisure and fun”.

The average household’s disposable income has dropped by 16.5% since the pandemic – leaving 40% of employees cutting down on socialising as a result. Psychologists say socialising with workmates isn’t “frivolous” – it’s an important part of the workplace dynamic.

People who have recently started a new job are most prone to feeling isolated, with 60% of employees who have spent less than five years in their current position feeling lonely “all or most of the time”.

Other factors include changes in team membership, forcing employees to lose stable workplace relationships and develop new ones. A manager who is too strict and a lack of support from a team leader also leads to isolation.

An inflexible workplace, less personal interaction with coworkers and feeling excluded from “cliques” causes many employees to feel alone. They experience a lack of focus and no “sense of belonging or community”.

What is the financial cost of loneliness at work?

Research by Total Jobs reveals 26% of people have quit their job due to loneliness. It causes employees to take an average of five sick days off every year.

The financial cost of loneliness to UK employers is an estimated £2.5 billion annually, according to a joint report by the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The main expenses include a higher staff turnover, costing £1.62 billion for recruitment and training, reduced productivity causing a £665 million financial loss and ill health and sick leave costing £20 million.

How does loneliness at work impact mental health?

Enjoying high quality, meaningful connections in the workplace leads to better employee wellbeing, greater engagement and a higher quality of work. A lack of social connection causes greater employee sick leave, less commitment to the company and lower productivity.

Employees who are feeling lonely and withdrawn generally appear “less approachable” to colleagues, making the situation worse. If the problem isn’t noted and tackled, a negative workplace culture that impacts more people can ensue.

Loneliness can creep up on you with little warning. If you work remotely, it can be easier to hide. You may find yourself soldiering on and trying to complete your normal workload, while secretly feeling increasingly anxious and depressed.

Around four-fifths of employees say they “don’t fit in” with colleagues, while 32% have started “actively isolating” themselves at work because they don’t feel like interacting.

This is very harmful to their general health: 68% say they are experiencing higher stress levels; 66% suffer low self-esteem; and 56% have insomnia. One-third of employees are calling in sick regularly because of these feelings.

Common signs that a person is feeling isolated at work include less engagement with their duties and reduced interaction with colleagues. Conversations become strictly about business and few pleasantries are exchanged. They have little interest in meetings and no ambition to develop their career.

How can you tackle feelings of loneliness at work?

As an individual employee, don’t suffer in silence. If you’re worried about saying something, experts recommend starting small. Speak to your line manager or employer in confidence and tell them you’re struggling.

Make efforts to reach out to colleagues, even if you don’t feel like it. For example, when you’re online after conference calls, make the effort to chat socially for a few minutes, rather than ringing off immediately. Asking someone, “How are you?” and enquiring about their day is a start.

In the office, make “purposeful” trips to colleagues for face-to-face contact, rather than sending an email about what you need. Simply talking more to other employees each day can help alleviate feelings of isolation.

As you become used to speaking to people more, it will gradually break down barriers. What seemed like a major challenge at first will become easier. You will find chatting comes naturally if you can overcome your initial fear of breaking the ice. In turn, colleagues who may have felt you were unapproachable will get to know you better and make more effort to speak to you.

Experts believe working from a coworking space can help combat loneliness in the office. Coworker feedback suggests it helps to strengthen a “sense of belonging and community” that is “vital for workplace happiness”. It also offers flexibility for employees who need it, helping to balance the demands of work with homelife, while creating a more social office community.

Working in a coworking environment, surrounded by like-minded people, makes it easier to interact and you’re less likely to feel isolated.

How can employers help?

As an employer, make the time to have a one-to-one meeting with employees who approach you about feeling isolated. Sadly, even in the 21st century, admitting to workplace loneliness still carries a stigma. Do more to encourage open conversations.

Studies of employees who feel lonely reveal 63% think their company should do more to combat the problems. Around a quarter say they have never felt able to confide in anyone at work, with 9% fearing they will face discrimination. They are more likely to tell family members or close personal friends.

Research by Total Jobs concluded employers needed to be proactive by putting measures in place to help combat workplace isolation. An “open door” policy to enable employees to voice their feelings is a good place to start.

People need a network of supportive people and tools. Staying silent is your worst enemy. Opening up to a colleague or manager about how you’re feeling is a positive step on the road to recovery. As an employer, letting staff know you care and that you’re supporting them can help them feel more relaxed and positive. The workplace infrastructure and culture should reflect what matters to employees. Aligning their own feelings with corporate values is beneficial for the individual and the company.

Adopt a management style that offers support and guidance, rather than aloofness. Research shows workplace design plays a big part, with an office that promotes visibility and connections being conducive to a happy workplace.

Coworking space with social elements

Headspace Group provides top-quality coworking space in Birmingham.

If you’re considering coworking, Birmingham could be the answer to your prayers. Our members benefit from additional social activities that will help combat isolation including an onsite gym, an indoor golf simulator, multiple break-out areas and a large roof garden terrace.


© PhotoByToR / Shutterstock.com

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