As mental health has increasingly moved up the agenda in modern society (and perhaps as many people feel more pressured than ever), stress and anxiety have consistently hit the headlines for workplace wellbeing practitioners.
But new research from the jobs website Totaljobs adds another, much less talked about problem to the list: loneliness. Astonishingly, the survey found that three out of five employees feel lonely at work. This, of course, may be as much due to isolating circumstances (driving jobs, for example, are particularly solitary, yet account for up to one in six jobs) as a bad work environment, but it’s a sobering statistic nevertheless.
Worse still, loneliness and mental health are a symbiotic vicious circle: isolation affects our mental welfare, and mental illness often leads to further loneliness as it becomes easier and more attractive to withdraw from social interaction.
On the plus side, as wellbeing professionals regularly point out, employers who invest in wellbeing programmes are rewarded with employees who are more productive, stay in-role and therefore bring their long-term skills to the company, and take less time off with mental or physical health issues. Better still, loneliness is something that can be relatively easy to put right, with the right workplace wellbeing training, effort into creating a positive environment and effective leadership from the top.
The Totaljobs research found that the leading reasons for loneliness include:
- Feeling pressure (44%): this may include simply being under so much pressure that there’s no time for interacting with colleagues, or those pressures causing a feeling of inadequacy in comparison with peers and colleagues that leads to isolation
- Not fitting in (42%)
- An employee isolating themselves (32%): this suggests a range of other possibilities, including home-life issues which an employer may find harder, or feel that it is not their responsibility or right, to identify.
The research also finds that the effects of loneliness include stress (a huge 68%), self-esteem issues (66%), sleep problems (56%) and only 38% stating that it had affected their productivity at work. This suggests that many people suffer in silence, despite the effect on their wellbeing and personal lives, in order to honour their commitments in the workplace.
Clearly, loneliness deserves to be challenged by workplace wellbeing professionals, and managers also have a role to play in developing a workplace culture which values social interaction – particularly as the cost of basic courtesy, civility and interest in colleagues is fundamentally zero. In the meantime, the mental health charity MIND offers the following advice (whilst respecting their confidentiality and without making assumptions) to helping support a lonely colleague:
- Encourage them to talk: it’s common sense and again costs nothing. The act of talking itself can be hugely beneficial.
- Help them to seek support in the workplace: either seeking assistance from a workplace wellbeing or HR professional, or elsewhere in the work environment, e.g. sports and social activities