4 ways to support employee loneliness this Blue Monday
Hey! I’m Sanjay Lobo. I lead onHand – an award-winning corporate volunteering platform that helps match employees to high impact, local volunteering opportunities. Much of our work has helped improve the loneliness felt by older generations but has had the added bonus of making those who volunteer feel less lonely too.
In this article, I’ll share my thoughts on the employee loneliness epidemic, what challenges we face and how to solve them – as well as sharing what’s been working for us at onHand!
Why has employee loneliness become such an important issue?
It’s been a completely crazy year. I don’t think there’s been a period quite like this. I certainly haven't seen anything this intense in my lifetime. In terms of loneliness, even if you look back to before the first lockdown in March of last year, over half of people working in Britain felt lonely at work.
This loneliness came from issues such as having little in common with teammates, working with people across a big age gap, and having colleagues but not proper friendships. On top of that, having a role which requires you to do most of your work alone was, understandably, the number one reason employees felt most lonely.
What’s happened in 2020 is that it's taken that connection of ‘I work alone, therefore, I’m lonely’ and applied it to everyone who now finds themselves working alone at home, or is still going to the workplace but has to distance themselves from colleagues and customers. In both scenarios, people are losing the vital interactions which would have helped them stave off the loneliness now being felt.
While this is affecting people of all ages, at onHand, we’ve found it can be a particular issue for millennials – who are the biggest age demographic in the UK workforce at present. When you look at stats such as nearly a quarter of millennials can’t name a single friend and, during lockdown, 16–29 year olds have been twice as likely to be lonely as 70+ year olds, it’s clear that loneliness is a wide-reaching issue.
What are the challenges to employee loneliness?
There are multiple pieces to the puzzle
Personally, I'm quite lucky that I've got three kids and they're still young enough to be living at home. For me, that’s great and one of the positives from all of this is that I’ve been “forced” to spend more time with them.
I understand this puts me in a fortunate position which isn’t an option for everyone, and that understanding has shown me what my biggest concern is when dealing with loneliness – the circumstances differ massively for everyone.
At onHand, we've got some people that live alone and some who are relatively young, in their early 20s. Both would have normally gone home for Christmas to see family but weren’t able to.
When you take into account that 45% of 18–24 year olds were unlikely to admit they’re lonely at Christmas pre-lockdown, you can imagine how that figure rose among younger generations. And it’s entirely possible that loneliness will be compounded further by the most recent announcement of a third lockdown.
Having no one to confide in
One positive to come from the periods of enforced isolation is that many people have now realised how many friends they actually have at work. It’s not really a surprise when you consider how much time we spend with them on a daily basis. Even those colleagues who you just spent five minutes making small talk with in the kitchen added up to an amount of friendly interaction we’re now missing.
The issue with this is that from small talk to big talk, all of these interactions happened naturally throughout the day. Now they need to be scheduled in as Zoom calls or take place through brief encounters muffled by PPE. What we’ve lost is having people to confide in. We’re missing out on those five minutes here and there where you can moan about the weather and those lunchtime chats where you can talk more broadly.
Senior employees have always been relatively isolated as it’s much harder to be one of the gang when you technically have the ability to fire them. Regardless of how close you are as a team, the team you manage will always open up more when you’re not around. That’s not something you can really change, it’s built into our beliefs about work.
I think this is why managers could be having a harder time in lockdown than other employees. Where the isolation would have been tolerable with friends, family and partners to see outside of work to make up for it, those interactions have been dramatically reduced too. Now managers are faced with that isolation at work without an outlet to make up for it.
A fear of ‘then what?’
One potential stumbling block towards checking in with employees is the fear of ‘then what?’. Some people may be wary of reaching out to people who they believe are feeling lonely simply because they don’t actually have a solution for them. And in fairness, this is the biggest issue that we all need to collectively solve in 2021.
It links to the fear of failure and can be further compounded when having to deal with your own emotional wellbeing at the same time. It might sound harsh to say, but managers may not have the tools they need to deal with what they’re going through, and reaching out could add to their list of worries.
How do you overcome those challenges?
Listen to how people are feeling
As someone who manages people, I try as best as possible to think about each person as an individual and seek to understand what’s going on in their life. I do this by spending time with them. Even if that’s just having a coffee on Zoom. The more I get to know them, the more I can recognise when things aren’t right.
Maybe they’re quieter than usual, don’t turn on their webcam when they usually do, are in a hurry to end the call, or don’t physically turn up in the first place! These are all obvious signs that they may be struggling. From there, all I try and do is listen. It’s likely they haven’t had someone’s ear to bend about how bad their internet is or share their excitement about the latest TV show they’ve been watching.
If your managers are responsible for lots of people, this could end up taking more time than they have. Encourage them to ‘build in’ space for chats in existing meetings – perhaps just the first ten minutes of existing one-to-ones or team meetings – the key is to avoid diving straight in to work topics. Having those conversational moments which feel more spontaneous will go some way to recreating how they might happen in the office.
Don’t stigmatise socialising
Whereas previously an employee might have confided in someone else in the office, they might not have confided in anyone at this point in our new remote working world. As outlined above, I think managers now have a duty to think about that much more. Unfortunately, it’s not everyone’s skill set to be sociable and take time to listen. Asking personal questions doesn’t come naturally to everyone and it’s possibly not the first reason your managers were hired.
If this is the case then managers, HR and the company at large need to set a precedent that it’s ok for employees to socialise on company time. This happens naturally in the workplace anyway. That’s why we should be giving employees permission to take 10/15 minutes out of their day to call, email, instant message or even just send the latest meme they’ve seen to their colleagues.
I’d recommend not making these open invitations where the whole team can come, as more than three or four people on a Zoom call can quickly become overwhelming. Instead, encourage employees to take 15 minutes of their day to talk to someone who they would naturally talk to in the office anyway. The more opportunities you give your employees to behave as they did in the workplace, the less likely they are to get lonely. Obviously, tools like Slack and Teams really help with this!
Setup support for your managers
With managers potentially suffering more than junior employees, it could be a good idea to set up support groups for managers where they can get together and talk about issues they’re facing together. When you’re faced with the additional pressure of other people’s loneliness, being able to openly speak to other people at your level about it can help to find new solutions.
If managers aren’t comfortable with doing this, HR can reach out to managers from time to time and check-in with how they’re feeling. This is the time to build solid relationships across the varying levels of seniority in your business. The more people feel they have peers who understand what they’re going through will build a sense of “we’re in this together”. And as soon as people start to feel that togetherness it will help to reduce some of the loneliness they’re feeling.
Not all junior employees may be up for this next suggestion, but encourage team members to reach out to their managers for non-work-related conversations. Recently, one of the more junior members of onHand just reached out to me and asked how I was doing. It wasn’t until that moment that I stopped and thought to myself: ‘How am I doing?’ And that’s all it took to have a shared moment with a colleague, which made me feel better understood.
Give an answer to ‘then what?’
As well as supporting managers with their loneliness, you also need to equip them with the tools to support their employees. You need to give them the answer to the question ‘then what?’.
Teach managers how to understand employee loneliness and how to spot the signs, and then give them practical actions which they can use to help. That could be allowing mental health days which are given on top of sick leave, it could be training for managers, access to an employee assistance programme, counselling sessions or a mindfulness app like Aura. Hey, you could even share this article with them as a starting point!
You can also look outside of your organisation to prevent loneliness. At onHand, we connect individuals with elderly, isolated people to have a chat over the phone or deliver shopping to them. Giving employees the means to do this connects them to their community outside of work and gives them new faces to speak to. An added bonus is that volunteering in this way improves happiness and productivity.
There’s definitely a need this year for managers to step up and better support their team members, but that means companies have a duty to give their managers the means to do it.
What does success look like in reducing employee loneliness?
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that loneliness is natural. For me, success isn’t eradicating loneliness entirely – that’s just not possible. Success will come from making everyone in your business more aware of the profound effects loneliness can have on mental health. From there, we need to provide managers and employees with the awareness and tools needed to improve their situation.
You can find out more about the work onHand are doing to make people feel less lonely by visiting their website.