Social distancing, self-isolation, wfh. Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock, you’ll be all-too-familiar with (if not a little weary of) these phenomena that have infiltrated our lives over the last eight months due to COVID-19. But it’s now evident that alongside the impacts of the virus on physical health, this ‘new normal’ is also detrimentally affecting our mental health, with a recent cross-national study revealing that 26% of employees are experiencing significantly increased levels of loneliness.
Loneliness, like coronavirus, can kill. Loneliness has been found to be a bigger risk factor to health than all of the usual suspects like obesity, lack of exercise and alcohol consumption. It’s not only associated with increased rates of illnesses like cardiovascular disease and stroke, but it has also been linked with altered brain chemistry and cognitive decline, as well as increased mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
So how does this play out in the workplace?
Usually in an office (the ‘old normal’) there are ample opportunities for social contact and relationship-building, which play a critical role in protecting against loneliness. It can be as simple as saying hello to your co-workers in the kitchen, or as you pass by their desk of a morning. There’s coffee runs, Friday lunches, cake for birthdays, and don’t forget the brownies that Sally-the-office-baker brings in for everyone to share. And as cringy as the ‘how was your weekend?’ chat might be for some, these micro-interactions are the foundation for forming connections.
When we’re working from home, or in a semi-distributed workforce, many of these opportunities for connection and building rapport are lost which can make employees feel like they’re not part of the ‘in group’, bringing about feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection.
The pandemic of loneliness in the workplace is not new, though. A 2019 report Workplace Loneliness revealed 60% of employees felt lonely at work, resulting in an average of five sick days a year. Employee loneliness was also linked with lower self esteem and reduced performance as seen in:
This is scary stuff for businesses and HR managers. What’s more concerning is that the pandemic would have exacerbated these outcomes, as the relationship between loneliness and performance now goes both ways. Stay with me here: we’ve established that feeling lonely can inhibit performance, but could reduced performance increase the risk of loneliness? Employees who aren’t working in the office miss out on the spontaneous conversations, brainstorms, decisions, incidental learning and knowledge transfer that occurs in an open-plan office environment. This could inadvertently hamper their performance and success, leading to feelings of inadequacy, decreased motivation and disengagement.
So, does the solution lie in more frequent Zoom catch-ups? Quite the opposite, our recent survey found over half of employees are in fact suffering from ‘zoom fatigue’.
Importantly, loneliness doesn’t just arise from being socially isolated, or not having enough social contact. It’s a product of the strength (or weakness) of the social connections you have and how strongly you identify with the groups you’re a part of. One study of 113 employees at a school found that stronger identification with the workplace had a positive impact on self-esteem, job involvement and depression. What this means for HR and managers, is that the focus shouldn’t just be on increasing the number of social occasions, but be about enhancing the quality of work relationships, and ensuring that team members feel like they’re part of the gang.
So what can you do to help team members build stronger relationships and feel more connected to your team and organisation, whether they’re working from home or in the office? Here’s a few ideas.
Checking in regularly with your employees to ask for their feedback and get a gauge on their mental health, satisfaction and wellbeing is absolutely vital. In light of the COVID-19 findings on increased employee loneliness, Dr Janni Leung from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology advises ongoing monitoring of remote workers.
“It will be essential to monitor the challenges and mental health of people who have continued to work remotely over a prolonged period to understand how this group is managing the loss of face-to-face interaction between colleagues,” she said.
But sometimes it can be easy to forget to check in, or a challenge to do frequently enough, and some employees may be hesitant to open up about how they’re really feeling through Zoom. Check-ins can be easily automated through a tool like intelliHR, and can be as simple as asking for a thumbs up/down response, or asking for more detail through a survey. In addition to getting a read on your team’s wellbeing on a micro and macro level, this helps you to identify any issues as they arise, which can be followed up quickly through a one-to-one conversation.
Yes you might be working from home, but if you’re in the same city, that doesn’t mean you can’t meet up in person (covid-permitting, of course). Whether it’s one-on-one time with your team members or a small group catch up, why not schedule a picnic in the park, coffee catch up or walk? Or better yet, discover the benefits of a walking meeting.
Face-to-face catch ups out of the question? Check out our list of remote meeting ideas that won’t cause Zoom-drain.
By now you’re probably a pro at virtual catch-ups whether they’re via Zoom, Houseparty or Google hangouts. Although Zoom fatigue can be a problem, it’s important to schedule in dedicated time for social activities like games (here’s a fun list we put together), challenges and birthday celebrations. In addition, if you use chat tools like Slack or Zoom, why not set up groups for employees to talk about common hobbies, passions or other non-work related things (did someone say cat memes?). These will help to strengthen team members’ connection to and identification with the team/organisation, creating that protective buffer against withdrawal and loneliness.
Sure many of us are already working ‘flexibly’ but it can be helpful to let employees know that it’s okay to work flexibly, while at home. While there’s no doubt that some employees will be taking advantage of the wfh situation and working less, many employees will actually be working more, with one study showing remote employees work an additional 1.4 days per month. Be sure to make it clear that breaks, and in particular, tech-free breaks are important and can be taken when best suited for the employee. If they’re more likely to exercise in the middle of the day, or if a morning coffee or longer lunch to connect with family or friends is what works, then encourage them to do that. Maintaining good physical and mental health is a key safeguard against loneliness.
Zoom fatigue is a thing and employees can often feel more vulnerable when they’re ‘on-show’, so try to meet them where they feel most comfortable. Like we mentioned before, surveys can be less-intimidating way for employees to open up or maybe you could try a good old fashioned phone call (remember them?).
Loneliness doesn’t just happen in a work context. Although the typical picture of wfh we’re presented with features a dog, cat, partner and couple of kids running amuck, spare a thought for those who live alone or in a sharehouse with flatmates who may not necessarily be friends, and if they’re isolated from friends and family too, it can pack a double punch. In the same vein, someone can feel lonely even when they’re in a crowded room, so just be mindful that if your employees are feeling lonely, disconnected or down there might be more to the story. Be kind, always.