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Loneliness at work

February 2, 2017

The launch of the commission on loneliness this week has highlighted some interesting facts by encouraging people to share their experiences. One of the key points that have been raised is the assumption many make of associating loneliness only with older people. Another common myth is that loneliness involves being alone, but it can affect people who are surrounded by others and well-connected socially. This is because loneliness is not simply about the quantity of connections but the quality of them, so a person may know a lot of people but still feel lonely as their needs for social contact are unmet. This is becomingly increasingly common with modern lifestyles that rely on technology and social media for most interactions.

One of the stories I heard was from a lady who described herself as being what others would see as happy and successful, essentially someone who would have no reason to be lonely. She had a number of connections including a partner, children and a successful career but she considered herself to be among the fifth of the population who according to research are “always or often lonely”. And with two thirds of those people stating they would never publicly confess to suffering from loneliness it’s no wonder it’s a hidden topic.

We are social animals and naturally like to feel like we belong and this is true not only in our personal and social lives but also at work. Our work tends to form a large part of our identity and for some can provide opportunities for social interaction that enhance wellbeing.
However, in some cases work intensifies feelings of loneliness. With so many changes to working patterns it is not unusual for employees to feel disconnected from colleagues.

I was recently speaking to a group of home-based workers who praised the benefits and flexibility of working from home but alongside this were feelings of isolation and being ‘out-of-the loop’ with other staff and the company, one described it as feeling forgotten or invisible at times. Similarly those or with part-time or shift working patterns can feel distanced and it can be difficult for those on short-term or temporary contracts to settle or feel they belong in a team that they may only be part of for weeks or months.

With loneliness being talked of as a significant public health issue it’s a subject to consider in a range of settings. In the workplace the importance of communication is key, and effective and appropriate communication specifically. Managers should consider how information is shared; a common complaint can be feeling like you miss out on important information as this is discussed when some people aren’t present. With a decrease in face to face interactions and a greater reliance on emails it is important that business or organisational issues affecting employees are communicated openly and inclusively.

An opportunity to talk about other things than work is also very important. So called ‘water cooler chats’ are frowned upon in some organisations for being an unproductive use of time; however, short breaks discussing hobbies, holidays or even last night’s TV programmes can have great benefits. They can bring people together, encourage better team work and engagement and can also flag up any early signs of issues such as stress that may otherwise remain hidden. For those that don’t tend to be in the office these conversations can also take place virtually. For some organisations work nights out tend to be the main way to encourage people to socialise, however, they do not always help feelings of loneliness as not everyone will be interested in the same activities and for those that can’t attend it can lead to further feelings of exclusion.
There are a range of options to choose from and organisations can get creative with activities to offer from book clubs to quiz nights to museum visits. The important thing is for there to be a consistent approach that recognises even small gestures can make a great difference to those that feel isolated or lonely at work.

What do you do at work to encourage connections and reduce loneliness? Share with us in the comments.

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