Workplace loneliness: a guide to helping lonely employees
Recent research from Totaljobs has revealed that an overwhelming number (60%) of 5,795 people surveyed have experienced loneliness in the workplace. As many as a quarter (26%) of employees have actually left their jobs due to feeling lonely.
A range of factors can contribute to loneliness. According to our research, 44% feel isolated due to work-related pressures; 42% because they don’t fit in with their colleagues and 32% as a result of actively seeking solitude at work. A great concern is that 21% of our respondents associated their loneliness with discrimination.
Feeling lonely significantly impacts employee mental health. Two thirds (68%) of employees who feel lonely say this impacts their stress levels; 66% suffer from low self-esteem, and a lack of sleep affects over half (56%).
A third have even called in sick as a result of their loneliness. Breaking this down by gender shows that 34% of women versus 27% of men have done so in order to avoid work.
This means that last year alone, workers took on average five sick days off work due to the implications of loneliness and poor mental health.
Many employees do not confide in their colleagues about their feelings, instead opting to speak to their friends (35%), family and partners (34%). Worryingly, 34% do not confide in anyone; more men, at 39%, compared to 30% of women would avoid discussing their loneliness with others.
Employers of all shapes and sizes are aware of the issue and can help tackle the stigma associated with speaking out about mental health at work – we turned to leading mental health charities Samaritans and Mind for their advice.
How can employers best support workers suffering from loneliness?
Many employees believe that workplace loneliness carries a stigma, which will only discourage them from speaking out. It is essential that employees feel supported and able to raise any issues as they see fit.
Samaritans are doing incredible work to help employers establish comfortable, respectful working environments for employees. Ruth Sutherland, CEO at Samaritans, says,
“We want to create happier, healthier and more productive workplaces. Samaritans is helping employers create supportive environments, where employees feel able to admit they are struggling, colleagues look out for each other and people listen without judgement.”
Those who have not shared their feelings of loneliness with a colleague or manager believe that if they did, it could negatively impact their career (13%) or they would face discrimination (9%).
With this in mind, making employees aware they can confide in someone at work is crucial. Partner with a mental health charity and highlight any initiatives they are leading in. This raises awareness of difficulties such as loneliness in the workplace and also allows fellow colleagues to play their own role in creating a caring environment.
Samaritans highlight the importance of asking colleagues if they’re okay and taking the time to truly engage in the conversation that follows. They explain the importance of being an active listener:
“Our Wellbeing in the City resource brings Samaritans’ listening skills into the workplace. The online learning tool, developed with Lord Mayor’s Appeal, gives employees the skills to intervene when someone is struggling, actively listen and manage difficult conversations. It also helps staff manage their own mental wellbeing.”
Similarly, at the mental health charity Mind, line managers are encouraged to draw up Wellness Action Plans with their direct reports. These practical guides, freely available from Mind’s website, are useful for all employees, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem. You can find additional advice by reading Mind’s article here.
The research revealed over half of those surveyed (63%) believe their company doesn’t do enough to combat loneliness, even though 38% admitted their struggles with loneliness is affecting their productivity.
Furthermore, a quarter of those surveyed stated they had never confided in anyone at work about their loneliness (1 in 4 men compared to a fifth of women), as they believed it would negatively impact their career (13%) or they would be discriminated against (9%).
If there is evidence that the health of an employee is being affected – or worsened – by workload or the working environment, employers have a responsibility to step in. A vicious cycle can begin if an employee feels lonely because of a heavy workload that leads to them staying behind at work.
38% of respondents say their struggles with loneliness affect their productivity. Samaritans highlight that, “Heavy workloads, tight deadlines and lack of managerial support are the main factors causing work-related stress, anxiety and depression. If people feel they have no one to turn to when they are feeling overwhelmed, it can lead to depression and feelings of not being able to cope.”
47% of millennials aged 22-37 claim pressure is the leading cause of their loneliness (compared with 39% of baby boomers aged 54-72). This is followed by not feeling like they fit in – 46%, compared with 32% of boomers. It is important to remember all levels of employees need to be supported in this way. Managers need to be trained to recognise evidence of loneliness and exclusion or withdrawal from social situations, but also must be given the tools to care for their own mental health.
One reason some employees feel uncomfortable sharing feelings such as loneliness with their colleagues or manager is fear of judgement and gossip. Discussing personal information can be a sensitive subject, so employers must respect the needs of their employees. Make them aware of support systems in place in HR, and make an effort to check in on them regularly, but do not discuss the information with anyone other than the employee unnecessarily, as this is likely to make them feel more isolated.
A Totaljobs spokesperson comments,
“We would strongly encourage men and women, millennials and boomers, to confide in someone about their loneliness, whether inside or outside of work. Talking to someone can help you to feel less lonely.
Equally, we would urge employers to be proactive in putting measures in place so those suffering with loneliness in the workplace have a network of people and tools to support them.”
Our Press Release can be found here.
Anyone can contact Samaritans for free anytime from any phone on 116 123. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch, where you can meet and talk to a trained volunteer
Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline: 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am – 6pm, Monday – Friday), or visit their website www.mind.org.uk/work