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How to combat workplace loneliness

Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is taking place from 9-15th May, and this year’s theme is loneliness. Research has shown that loneliness has extensive repercussions for both physical and mental health. And the last two years have meant that, in conjunction with the Covid epidemic, we are also collectively experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.

According to the Mental health Foundation, the organisation behind MHAW, “loneliness is a significant public health issue. It remains one of the key indicators of poor mental health, our own reports have shown that being connected to other people in a way that helps us feel valued is absolutely fundamental to protecting our mental health. Long-term feelings of loneliness have also been shown to be associated with higher rates of mortality and poorer physical health outcomes.”

A Mental Health Foundation study showed that Covid-19 brought the experience of loneliness closer to millions. During the lockdowns, loneliness was almost 3 times that of pre-pandemic levels.

According to the loneliness charity Marmalade Trust, the effects of loneliness can have far-reaching repercussions both physically and mentally. “Loneliness has been linked to early deaths and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and poor sleep. It’s as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely.”

And, contrary to popular perception, loneliness isn’t just the preserve of the elderly. The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment found that 40% of young people now feel lonely, as compared to 27% of over 75’s. Loneliness in the workplace is on the rise. Covid saw many people changing their work practices and working from home, separated from colleagues and offices.

Working from home costs us culture and connection?

According to the Marmalade Trust: “Research shows that one in four British workers could work from home for good, with many more organisations offering a mix of home-based and office-based working. We spend a quarter of our lives at work and it’s vital that we have positive and supportive relationships with the people we work with… Increased use of technology and more agile working has given employees and organisations more flexibility – but often at the cost of culture and connection.”

But even before the pandemic, increasing numbers of people were experiencing loneliness in their working lives. In 2019, an astonishing three in five people (60%) reported feeling lonely at work. The message is clear: You don’t have to be alone to be lonely.

Clearly, workplaces have a role to play in correcting this issue. Obviously, this is the most moral and humane approach – we all want to spread more happiness – but it also makes the most business sense.

The business cost of workplace loneliness

Global employee engagement platform Vantage Circle illustrates the point: “[When] employees feel they lack the desired connection with peers, they become emotionally detached from the organisation and its success. The lack of belonging reduces their commitment to the organisation. Employees rarely get involved with the organisation’s functions and important decision-making processes. The overall result is reduced employee engagement.”

This has serious consequences for performance, says Entrepreneur magazine: “Lonely workers are seven times less likely to be engaged at work. They are five times more likely to miss work due to stress or illness. And, twice as often to think about leaving their employer. Loneliness is an unaddressed productivity killer that is incapacitating many teams.”

According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four workers who felt lonely quit their jobs. In a world where businesses are struggling to keep hold of their workers thanks to the purported ‘Great Resignation’, this fact alone should cause employers to sit up and take notice.

And the bottom line, according to statistics released by the government’s own guidelines regarding workplace loneliness, is brutal: “The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5 billion every year. These costs are primarily due to increased staff turnover (64%, £1.62 billion) as well as lower wellbeing and productivity (26%, £665 million), the impact of caring responsibilities (9%, £220 million) and ill health and associated sickness absence (1%, £20 million). At an individual level, the monetised impact of severe loneliness has been estimated as £9,900 per person per year, due to the impact on wellbeing, health and productivity.”

Are businesses doing enough to help?

So, loneliness is bad for business. But it seems that employers are being slow to pick up on this fact and take action accordingly. A survey by Totaljobs found that 63% of lonely employees feel their company doesn’t do anything to combat workplace loneliness. Part of the problem may be that businesses don’t know where to begin tackling this issue. But there are some simple, effective and inexpensive solutions that can make all the difference.

The government guidelines state: “Wellbeing programmes are increasingly adopted by employers who recognise the links between work, health, wellbeing and productivity. Loneliness awareness and the importance of meaningful social connections in the workplace can be embedded within existing policies and practice on wellbeing and mental health… Workplace policies and practice that put employee wellbeing at their core and support staff at these times can help to reduce the risk of loneliness and benefit both organisations and their staff.”

Mental health charity Mind concurs: “It makes good business sense to implement well-being initiatives at work… Recent analysis by Deloitte, as part of the independent, government-commissioned employment review ‘Thriving at Work’, found a return to business of £1.50–£9.00 for every £1 invested in well-being programmes.”

Employers looking to combat workplace loneliness need to find a wellbeing initiative that will bring people together, and give a sense of community and connection to those employees who may feel marginalised. Returning to the government’s guidelines, this sense of connection is key: “Having good quality meaningful connections is associated with better outcomes in terms of quality of work, higher wellbeing and greater engagement in work.”

BuddyBoost is a programme that works

This is where a wellbeing programme like BuddyBoost can be hugely effective. BuddyBoost is a proven employee wellbeing tool, where participants commit to doing something which is good for them each day over the course of a month, including physical exercise, partaking in a hobby or eating a little better. Participants rate their mood after completing their daily activity and the data from thousands of participants shows that on average people get a 25% mood boost from the programme.

But crucially, BuddyBoost also has embedded in its programme a sense of community and mutual support. Participants form into groups of buddies in the BuddyBoost app to help and motivate one another to complete the challenge. A key aspect of the BuddyBoost experience is that it strengthens camaraderie and fosters a strong team spirit among co-workers.

Everyone taking part in a BuddyBoost challenge stays in touch on their company’s private community feed, posting messages and photos, boosting engagement and sense of unity. This fosters a spirit of open engagement in a company that improves colleague bonds, and strengthen employee loyalty.

64% of participants say doing BuddyBoost builds a sense of camaraderie across the business. Carla Stockton-Jones, the UK Managing Director of Stagecoach, gave this feedback: “I cannot recommend BuddyBoost highly enough. It’s such an easy initiative to implement and use, allowing colleagues from right across the country to unite together in a unique and enjoyable way.”

Helping your employees build a sense of togetherness can go a long way towards creating bonds and eliminating workplace loneliness, according to Vantage Circle: “Apart from building the spirit of teamwork and collaboration, team-building projects curb loneliness. Working in groups enables employees to interact and connect. They get to know each other more outside their work too. Team building activities can also give employees the opportunity to make friends at work.”

These continue to be tricky times, both for individuals and businesses. But it is clear that the businesses that look after their individuals will be the ones who thrive, as the government guidelines clearly reflect: “By tackling loneliness and supporting employees to build social connections, employers can ensure a more productive and resilient workforce. Workplaces where employees have a strong sense of organisational identity are more able to withstand the effects of recession and maintain performance… Workplace policies and practice that put employee wellbeing at their core and support staff at these times can help to reduce the risk of loneliness and benefit both organisations and their staff.”

In the fight against loneliness and its attendant health risks, employers have a key role to play, and implementing the right wellbeing programme could make all the difference.


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