In an increasingly interconnected world, pervasive loneliness and social isolation is a paradox of concern for both employers and society at large. Employee loneliness poses a significant concern for employers as it can have far reaching negative impacts on both an individual’s and the organization’s wellbeing. But there are actions employers can take to increase social connectedness among employees and enhance overall employee wellbeing.
For many employees, the workplace is a primary source of social connection where they create and maintain close personal relationships. The pandemic pressure tested the ability to keep not only those precious work-related social connections alive, but it also severely restricted people’s ability to connect with their family and broader community. Social media and increased dependence on technology have also led to decreased personal interactions and less relationships.
Post-pandemic, many people who have the choice are choosing to work remotely on a full or part-time basis at the expense of social connections.
Loneliness often leads to decreased productivity and engagement as isolated employees struggle to stay motivated and connected with their work. Reduced morale can create a ripple effect affecting team dynamics, overall workplace culture and ultimately organizational productivity.
Loneliness and poor social connection are common across the globe and result in higher risks to a person’s mental and physical health. The U.S. Surgeon General, which recently issued an advisory on the effects of social connection, reports that employers bear the burden of $154 billion annually due to stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness. And the World Health Organization recognizes social isolation and loneliness as a priority public health problem. Great Britain has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address what is a growing public health concern in the U.K.
Loneliness and isolation are reported across all demographics, regardless of age, gender, or income:
Community surveys indicate between 25% and 30% of Canadians report persistent loneliness.
Loneliness and social isolation are closely connected to mental health. Anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses often lead to social isolation. This could be due to stigma, shame, fear, or physical symptoms such as fatigue, exhaustion, or hypervigilance. Lack of mental healthcare could perpetuate isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness and social isolation also could be behind new feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, or grief associated with the loss of social connections. Whether the mental health condition or the social isolation comes first doesn’t really matter. Both need to be addressed with the proper interventions and support.
Globally, high risk employees who report issues in all areas of wellbeing are both:
Those individuals who have higher levels of depression and anxiety, driven by any factor, are more likely to engage in addictive behaviors, such as overusing alcohol, smoking or using illicit substances. Individuals with higher levels of depression or anxiety and loneliness/social isolation are at higher risk of comorbid medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
Employers have as big a role to play in employees’ psychological wellbeing as they do in their physical wellbeing. And while benefits are clearly important, employers can also create a sense of connectedness and purpose among employees that can help to alleviate loneliness. Understanding the problem is key to creating meaningful solutions that will have an impact.
Here are five ways to address loneliness in your organization that can be applied globally:
Use employee surveys as a method of understanding if loneliness is an issue in your organization and how pervasive it might be. Loneliness impacts different cohorts of people differently. Generational groups, specific countries, parents and other caregivers, or veterans are all groups that have unique experiences with loneliness. A survey can help understand if loneliness is a problem and where it might be more prevalent, allowing for targeted interventions at the organizational level or with more local or regional initiatives.
To address loneliness and social connection within your organization, connect the topics back to leadership messaging and awareness campaigns. Equip managers through training to recognize signs of loneliness and to be able to listen and act empathetically in order to support employees. Help managers to capitalize on opportunities to engage their remote teams in regular processes or events that pull remote workers and teams together, either virtually or in person. Opportunities can be work-focused, such as small group, facilitator-led virtual discussions on communication styles or how personality impacts the team environment. Other measures can be focused entirely on social connection, such as coordinated volunteer days, virtual coffee chats with food delivery or in-person or virtual book-club meetings.
Because loneliness may not register as a critical issue, creating the connections and linkages between loneliness and social isolation back to physical and mental health is critical. Build awareness around the impact to health and use this as an opportunity to highlight the positive impacts of social connections. Structured employee communications, webinars or discussions and leveraging national awareness campaigns and their content, such as Global Loneliness Awareness Week held annually in June can all help focus attention on the issue.
Leverage the community nature of resource groups to foster the culture of social connections among employees. Employee resource groups connect like-minded employees or those with similar lived experiences. Use them to promote social connection within the resource group and to increase engagement with other employees who have yet to connect. Employee resource groups can host events such as coffee hours or webinars and encourage larger connections to organizations outside the company that align to their goals (e.g., National Alliance on Mental Illness, Autism Speaks, Alzheimer’s Association). Initiate or identify champions to push out the messages necessary to combat loneliness within the group and the larger organization to foster connections among employees.
Use your vendor partners to provide deeper support for those experiencing clinical needs that are driven by loneliness. Employee assistance programs are a great entry point to coaching or therapy sessions to address underlying issues while developing tactical plans to address social barriers. Share benefit links or QR codes with employees that can address loneliness, such as employee assistance programs or health plan programs. Don’t forget to tap into other vendor solutions in adolescent and caregiving spaces; older adults and adolescent/young adults struggle the most with loneliness and social connection. Ensuring their unique needs are met is important too.
Check the basics that you have in place. For example, ensure that IT infrastructure like Teams or Zoom allows for ongoing connection between remote employees. Consider technology options like Yammer or Slack to support workplace connections. At the worksite or office, make sure there are spaces designed to foster communication and collaboration when employees are together.
Loneliness and social isolation have negative effects on employee wellbeing and organizational productivity. Additionally, these issues are a growing public health concern around the world. It is prudent for employers to be aware of the impacts loneliness and social isolation can have on the organization, culture, and overall health of the company. By taking proactive measures to address loneliness and nurturing connections, employers hold the power to reinforce their culture, improve their teams and pave the way for better employee wellbeing and success.