Jayne Carrington: Loneliness in the workplace – how can we address it?

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wellbeing-badgeA recent study by relationship charity, Relate, has revealed that four in 10 people have no close friends at work at all and that most workers have much more contact with their boss and colleagues than with their own friends or close family. At the same time, workplace stress is rapidly increasing, with new research from Towers Watson revealing that 57 percent of employees experience high levels of stress at work. This begs the question; if people have no one to turn to in times of immense pressure, will loneliness become the next ticking time bomb in the workplace?

Relationships are key to getting people through tough times and with workplace stress being the main cause of absence from the workplace, it’s more important than ever that people feel supported by their employer. Organisations can play a big role in making the workplace a more productive, engaged and happy place to be. So what are the key points to consider when addressing the ever growing issue of loneliness in the workplace?

Respect the individual choice

In some cases, people withdraw at work because they are depressed, anxious or stressed and this needs to quickly be addressed by the employer. In many instances, however, people actually choose to be alone and aren’t necessarily unhappy, it’s simply in their personality type to be quiet and subdued. Therefore, it’s important for line managers and HR departments to understand what their workforce wants and identify whether an employee is pulling away from social activities willingly or going into an unhealthy zone of isolation whereby they would benefit from an intervention and extra support from the business. Managers and peers in particular, because they work so closely with colleagues, should hold ultimate responsibility for recognising whether a staff member withdrawing from social activity is abnormal or out of character and draw on support from the HR department as and when it is needed.

Build a support network

Organisations must ensure that they have a good support system in place that is easily accessible for employees when they may be feeling lonely and ‘out of sorts’. After all, in a busy working environment it can be difficult for voices to be heard and therefore hard for people to express to their colleagues when they’re feeling low and alone. Employee assistance programmes and strong occupational health departments can work really well, and even simply creating a caring culture of trust and confidentiality will help employees to feel comfortable talking to their manager about problems and ensure that they do not feel alone.

Create a culture

While it is important to remember that it is the workplace, not the social club, the BITC’s Workwell model highlights the need for collaboration. Employers have an important role to play in creating an environment where employees can make healthy lifestyle choices, but employees must take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing too. The current pace of work often means that there’s not a lot of time to socialise, however organisations do need to create a fun culture in order for employees to feel engaged and this can be done by making sure there is a good balance of social events and every day work.

Do we really need ‘friends’ in the workplace?

Having a friend in the workplace can help in times of stress when an employee may feel like they can’t turn to their manager for support. In some environments however, having a friend at work can be perceived as unprofessional, therefore it is not so easy to socialise. This can become increasingly the case for more senior individuals who may feel it inappropriate to have friends at work and so avoid social situations in order to maintain their professional image. In certain workplaces, like call centres for example, social activity is encouraged so it’s easier to make friends. Ultimately it depends on the culture of the organisation as to how much an individual can forge friendships at work, but nevertheless, it is important to build relationships whereby colleagues can support each other.

The future working landscape, where does that leave the loneliness issue?

The changing landscape at work means that the concept of a good work-life balance has altered. The growth of technology in particular gives us the opportunity to work differently, moving us away from the traditional 9-5 working hours and enabling us to work in different ways, such as on the go or at home. However, it also presents a new ‘work-life integration’ which can be challenging to individuals, particularly carers and parents, who have other responsibilities and therefore less time to put in extra hours. This means that businesses have to help people to find out how they work best to help keep them engaged and productive. For example, while working from home can help some employees work more productively, some people might find it a lonely experience and therefore feel detached from colleagues and workplace life.

At the same time, there is also a trend towards an increase in part-time employees, with the latest REC/KPMG Report on Jobs revealing that demand for both permanent and temporary employees rose strongly during August. When employees are part-time, or temporary, they are less likely to want to make friends in the workplace as their priority will be to get through their workload in the fixed hours that they work.

It’s important that organisations recognise that one size does not fit all, so they need to help employees find the right balance that suits them, whilst ensuring it also meets the needs of the business. While some employees want to come to work to simply do their job, others may feel the need to have a strong group of peers in the workplace. Being respectful of individual needs will put employers in a good place to have a resilient, productive, willing and able workforce that will help drive the business forward both now and in the future.

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