Addressing loneliness in the workplace

Colleagues sit around a table with their laptops open. One person is standing up and pointing at a white board which has lots of post-it notes on it.

Earlier this month, members of the Tackling Loneliness Hub came together for a workshop on Addressing Loneliness in the Workplace. This blog provides a brief overview of what we covered. If you’re a member of the Hub, continue the discussion in the Workplace and Loneliness group

Overview of loneliness in the workplace

Robin Hewings (Campaign to End Loneliness) shared an overview of the impact of workplace loneliness and what employers can do to address loneliness. Key findings shared: 

  • The cost of loneliness to UK employers is estimated to be £2.5 billion every year [Co-op and New Economics Foundation, The Cost of Loneliness to UK employers, 2017] 
  • Employment is associated with a reduced loneliness risk. 5% of people who are employed say they are lonely often or always, compared with 15% of people who are unemployed [Community Life Survey, 2019] 
  • 1 in 5 of us feel lonely at work and those aged 18 – 24 are twice as likely to feel lonely at work than others [Mental Health UK and YouGov, 2022]
  • Employees who feel lonely: may appear less approachable to their colleagues, have frequent illnesses or be tired more frequently, or may spend more time alone. 

The five key themes to tackle loneliness at work, as identified in the Employers and Loneliness guidance were also discussed. These themes are: 

  • Culture and infrastructure
  • Management 
  • People and networks
  • Work and workplace design 
  • Wider role in the community

A systematic review of the evidence

Bridget Bryan, PhD researcher at King’s College London, shared findings from a review of the literature on loneliness at work. The inclusion criteria for this systematic review: presented original data on work-related loneliness; analysed the relationship between loneliness and work or wellbeing factors; and examined a sample of workers from any organisation. 

A snapshot of findings from the systematic review include: 

  • Work related loneliness is associated with elevated burnout, higher depression and anxiety symptoms and lower life satisfaction. [Anand & Mishra 2021| Bentley et al. 2016 | Satilmis et al. 2018] 
  • Feeling lonely at work is linked with lower work engagement and productivity [Galanti et al, 2021]
  • Supportive and meaningful working relationships may buffer against feelings of loneliness [Aira et al. 2010 | Jannson et al. 2018]
  • Staff with a positive relationship with their manager are less lonely [Arslan et al. 2020| Lam & Lau 2012] 

Practical steps for addressing loneliness 

We also heard from Sally Flowers and Deb Meynell from Reengage about how they support colleagues to feel connected in a fully remote working environment. Suggestions included regular team meetings, buddy systems, informal coffee breaks, involving colleagues in task and finish groups, and more social events and discussion forums. 

Providing support at key stages in the employee life cycle

During the workshop, we discussed as a group some ideas for mitigating the risk of loneliness for colleagues at key stages in their career. In addition to loneliness awareness training and equality and diversity training for all staff,  here are some of the ideas we came up with. 

Entry level employees

  • Have a clear and structured onboarding process, with a mixture of in person and online meetings.
  • Introduce new starters to other colleagues in the team and key contacts.
  • Enable new starters to shadow meetings with other colleagues.
  • Develop a buddy system for new starters.
  • Create cross working groups to enable employees to share their expertise and meet colleagues from across the organisation.
  • Provide regular social social activities, such as team lunches, lunchtime walking groups, etc.
  • Manager relationship is key – provide clear objectives, explain how the role fits within the wider team, and have regular 1:1s.
  • Provide resources: employee handbook which outlines support available as well as glossary of terms / acronyms used. 

Employees returning from a long period of absence 

  • Ease the employee back into the workplace gradually with a phased return.
  • Ensure the employee is consulted in all stages of their return to work.
  • Upskill line managers so they are prepared to support employees.
  • Signpost colleagues to relevant support as required.
  • Develop a Wellness Action Plan.
  • Ensure regular meetings with the line manager or HR person to check-in and meet reasonable adjustments.

Employees promoted to a senior or managerial position

  • Develop a manager peer support network to enable challenges to be discussed in an open and safe space. 
  • Keep regular team meetings, even if there is not much to discuss.
  • Be transparent with colleagues about your management style and foster a culture of trust and open communication. 
  • Consider coaching or support outside the organisation. 

Employees approaching retirement

  • Create peer support groups to help build social connections with others who are also approaching retirement. 
  • Develop a buddy system, either between a near retiree and someone still in the organisation, or pairing someone approaching retirement with someone already retired.
  • Have a ‘Mid-life MOT’ conversation which could be used to discuss retirement alongside a range of other workplace issues. 
  • Provide resources: video case studies describing individual experience and tips for a positive transition to retirement; list of volunteer opportunities and community groups which may be useful. 

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