20 April 2022

How HR can tackle employee loneliness when working remotely

From communicating openly, to raising awareness of loneliness, here’s how HR can support employees who feel isolated or alone

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Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021.

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Health and wellbeing Leadership and management

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From communicating openly, to raising awareness of loneliness, here’s how HR can support employees who feel isolated or alone

How many of us have felt isolated or lonely during the pandemic? Between 3 April and 3 May 2020, 2.6 million adults in the UK reported that they “often” or “always” felt lonely. Lockdown meant no socialising with others in person and while this might have come as a relief to some, to others it resulted in increased feelings of loneliness. Now, with many UK towns and cities entering lockdown for the second time this year, and with lots of us continuing to work remotely, loneliness is likely to continue to rise – impacting physical and mental health, and productivity at work.

Loneliness is known to increase the risk for heart disease, depression, and sleep disturbances. Working from home and social distancing requirements have only magnified these feelings. When explaining the impact of loneliness, Laura Welsh, head of HR at LHH UK & Ireland, says, “having a lack of social contact at work can have a huge impact on our resilience levels, energy, and productivity – all the while compounded by the additional anxieties of living through a pandemic.

“It’s an old adage, but the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” rings true here, and I fear many are suffering in silence.”

With loneliness costing over £2.5 billion for employers, here’s what HR should be doing to help its employees who may be “suffering in silence.”

Communicate with employees

“Isolation and loneliness have been an issue for years,” says Gary Butterfield, co-founder of Juice – a platform which helps organisations manage wellbeing.

“We’ve never been so well connected as a society as we are now through tools like Zoom and social media, but despite this connection, we’ve also never been more isolated.”

While remote working, HR should rely on tools like Microsoft Teams to attempt to spot feelings of loneliness among employees – despite there not being a typical list of signs to look out for – by having regular check ins and asking them how they feel.

Gemma Dale, senior HR professional, lecturer and the author of Flexible Working, says: “remote working has limited the social side of work. The casual chat before a meeting starts, coffee with a colleague or lunchtime activities have largely stopped in many workplaces. Therefore, signs that something is ‘wrong’ are also reduced.

“Even if someone is lonely, they may not feel like this is something that they can say. Managers or team members are probably most likely to identify if someone could be lonely, perhaps through things that they say in day to day conversation. As loneliness may not be easily to identify, it is important that managers are checking in with employees regularly. A simple ‘how are you’ can give employees the space to share and raise any issues that they are experiencing.”

Butterfield agrees, adding: “General, non-scripted chat can help employees feel more comfortable and opens up better dialogue for a chat about how they really feel.”

Create opportunities for employees to reconnect with others

The office environment can be a big part of an employee’s social life, and without it, can leave them feeling isolated and alone. When working remotely, HR should create opportunities that allow employees to reconnect with each other even if they can’t see each other in person.

“For some employees, work and the office are part of their social life and fulfil their need for connection and friendship,” says Dale. “These employees may be finding this long-term period of enforced homeworking problematic or even detrimental to their mental health.”

Online quizzes, team calls and even group exercise classes can, as a result, help employees socialise with each other when working from home.

However, HR teams should remember to ask employees if they want to participate in online social activities, and what they would like to do.

“What a lot of organisations tend to do is go down the technology route to connect employees which isn’t a bad thing but I think organisations are already incredibly siloed in the way that they are structured, and when you have online yoga sessions with only a few employees for example, you’re further isolating the rest of the employees in an already siloed organisations,” says Butterfield.

Welsh adds: “It’s important to regularly ask employees themselves want they want, whether that’s via staff forums or anonymous employee surveys. I’d encourage businesses to avoid relying solely on one form of social activity here – we can all sympathise with suffering from Zoom fatigue. Mixing things up and trying new approaches will only increase levels of engagement.”

Raise awareness of loneliness

Over the last 20 years, the number of people living on their own has increased by 20% and today, 48% of us believe that people are getting lonelier in general despite being so closely connected by technology.

While the pandemic shone a light on the topic of loneliness, HR has to do more to raise awareness of loneliness and educate its workforce on how to communicate and support each other.

“HR should take the lead in ensuring regular companywide communication on the importance of good mental health,” says Welsh.

“HR should also make clear the support that is available to employees who are feeling lonely or struggling with their mental health – this will create a culture where people will feel comfortable to come forward if they are struggling.”

By putting up posters about loneliness or holding workshops where you share the support that’s available within the organisation, employees can all gain a better understanding about loneliness and how they can help each other.

Encourage employees to use employee assistance programmes (EAP)

EAPs give employees the opportunity to talk to someone – other than HR – confidentially about how they feel.

Dale says: “EAPs can be a source of support to employees experiencing loneliness. Many EAPs also offer wellbeing apps or portals and most offer a 24/7 response. During the current time where an organisation has an EAP, they should take every opportunity to remind employees of this valuable service – and make sure that managers know what the service covers and have details so that they can pass them onto their teams.”

“HR can further support employees by providing a comprehensive wellbeing offering for employees encompassing all aspects of health and wellbeing – including physical and mental health needs.”

A key consideration when tackling employee loneliness is that loneliness varies from person to person. Dale explains: “What will make one person lonely will not necessarily have any impact on someone else. Just because someone lives alone, for example, does not mean that they will be lonely, and it is equally possible to be lonely in a crowd.”