Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
3:00 AM 9th May 2022

Three Ways That Employers Can Combat The ‘Loneliness Epidemic’

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness.
Rebecca Dixon Head of HR Consultancy at Progeny
discusses how employers can help combat loneliness.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
As more businesses introduce permanent hybrid or remote working, loneliness presents an increasing challenge that employers are being expected to develop solutions for, with recent research* showing that nearly three quarters of workers (73%) believe their employers should take mitigating action. This reflects the increasingly societal role that businesses hold and their responsibility to their employees no longer ends when they step out of the door or close their laptop each day.

Although flexible working is widely recognised as an attractor in recruitment terms, conversely, it seems that employers with home-based workers can experience a higher increase in resignations than their office-based counterparts. According to a recent survey by HR software provider CIPHR, 82% of employers with employees who always work from home say they’ve seen an increase in resignations over the past 12 months, as opposed to only 54% of employers with employees who never work from home.

Rebecca Dixon
Rebecca Dixon
Loneliness is likely to be a key contributing factor, which also has strong links to a decline in mental health. So, what actions can employers take to try and counteract what has been termed the ‘loneliness epidemic’?

Creating opportunities to interact

Whilst workplace technology allows people to do their jobs effectively, the lack of ‘water cooler’ moments has a negative impact on the social interaction of team members, which tends to enrich working life. In fact, recent Totaljobs’ research found that 52% of UK workers rely on the workplace for most of their social interactions.

First and foremost, managers need to ensure they establish a regular schedule of checking in with their home workers and also arrange opportunities for their team to interact face to face, such as workshops or away days, to counteract the isolation of working from home

Employers should also be mindful to create opportunities for remote workers to interact on a less formal basis. Setting up a social committee is an obvious starting point, to create opportunities to mix outside the workplace. The creation of employee forums, focused on key issues can encourage communication across teams, while granting employees time for activities in their local communities such as volunteering provides the added benefit of boosting mental health.

Although technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, it simply can’t totally replace or replicate the authenticity of human interactions.

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay
Focus on mental health

The links between loneliness and a decline in mental health are well recognised and there are a number of positive actions that employers can take.
It’s essential that managers, as the central point of contact for their teams, are provided with the training and tools they need to both develop their understanding of mental health and support the wellbeing of their colleagues. Firms can invest in mental health first aider training, akin to physical first aiders, or there are a wide variety of free resources from organisations such as MIND who provide an online gateway of advice and tools for workplaces and managers, on spotting the signs of poor mental health and guidance on supportive conversations and signposting.

In terms of then supporting employees who are struggling, companies can invest in formal schemes, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or private healthcare scheme, or signpost free resources, such as the lottery-funded Clic, a free online community to support people with their mental health or Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s health resources for remote working.

The key is that firms have people internally equipped with the knowledge to recognise symptoms and guide colleagues to further support, whether that’s via their employer, self-help resources, the NHS, or a mixture of these.

Consider the employee experience

As flexible and remote working becomes commonplace, simply following procedures and practices established for office working isn’t going to deliver the level of employee experience that people desire.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) Working at Home Wellbeing Survey Interim Findings revealed that 33% of employees working from home frequently felt isolated, 34% worried that decisions were taken without their involvement and 29% of employees felt that their supervisor was not good at keeping in touch.

To combat this, organisations need to review the entire employee journey - from their interviewing and induction process, their approach to leading and managing, through to working agreements and procedures - to ensure they are fit for purpose in a remote or hybrid world and that home workers don’t feel isolated or overlooked. Leading hybrid teams requires different skills and managers additionally need to be supported with the right training and tools to do this successfully.

Maintaining company culture and a sense of belonging also becomes more of a challenge. Regular hybrid ‘town halls’ and senior management Q&As are great ways of communicating shared values and successes, to help increase engagement and ensure consistent communication across the wider team. Organisations can also encourage people from across the company to take the lead on the topics that matter to them and that they’re passionate about, such as sustainability, wellbeing or diversity and inclusion.

Finally, organisations need to be willing to ask their employees for genuine feedback, via regular temperature checks or periodic employee surveys and have mechanisms in place to action any identified improvements.

In summary, hybrid and remote working have been introduced by many organisations to help empower their employees and the challenges that business owners are now facing are new and evolving. However, the core principles of establishing clear communication, building trust and creating purpose still stand and it’s about transposing these into our new working arrangements, so that employers and employees can move forward together.

*research by managed services provider, Silicon Reef.