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Not alone but lonely: How to tackle workplace isolation and improve wellbeing at work

25 Feb 2020 - Blog, Covid-19

Not alone but lonely: How to tackle workplace isolation and improve wellbeing at work 

Written by Liana Persico, Client Services Executive at People Insight

“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness are increasing.” Vivek Murphy in an interview by Dan Schawbel

We’ve got more ways of being in contact with our colleagues than ever, and yet over half of UK adults feel lonely at work. This has a negative impact on employee wellbeing, with 68% of employees who have felt lonely at work saying it increased their stress levels. It’s bad for business too; employees experiencing feelings of loneliness are less engaged, more likely to take time off and less likely to make ‘discretionary effort’. 

So what causes loneliness at work? And what can organisations do about it? Let’s take a look.  

A personal perspective from Liana 

Whilst working at a mental health hospital in a previous role, I was on a zero-hour contract, and although this suited my schedule I also often felt a bit of a “spare-part” and disconnected from my colleagues and employer.  

When talking about this to friends and family, I realised how common feelings of workplace isolation can be and chose to explore this further during my MSc in Organisational Psychiatry and Psychology at King’s College London, where I researched how organisations can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness at work. Having graduated last year, I was excited to join People Insight as a Client Service Executive, putting my academic knowledge into practice and helping organisations to improve employee engagement. 

Looking into workplace isolation, loneliness and wellbeing at work 

For the final part of my MSc, I explored how employee feelings of workplace isolation and workplace loneliness are affected by two factors; supportive workplace behaviours (like a colleague offering help to someone who is falling behind on a task) and task interdependence (the extent to which employees work together).  

In the study, we surveyed employees from a number of organisations, both office-based and remote workers, to ask whether they felt isolated from their colleagues (colleague isolation), their organisation (company isolation) and whether they felt lonely at work.  

Design a culture that supports wellbeing at work 

Previous research found that feeling isolated from an organisation (i.e. if an employee feels undervalued or disconnected from the organisation’s purpose) negatively impacts employee wellbeing, and our survey results confirmed this too. We also discovered that supportive behaviours from colleagues (like offering support to a colleague and valuing the different members of your work team) can actually counteract this negative impact.  

But these behaviours won’t work if they’re ‘knee jerk’ initiatives. To have an impact on employee wellbeing, these behaviours must be embedded into an organisation’s culture and become ‘business as usual’ for managers and leaders. That might mean managers sharing praise and positive feedback in team emails, putting shout-outs on Slack for employee achievements or designing fair recognition programmes with employees at the heart.  

Think about the sort of behaviours your company culture is encouraging amongst colleagues. Organisations can’t force employees to like each other and people won’t always see eye to eye, but some extreme cultures actively pit colleagues against each other. These competitive cultures may be beneficial in the short term by encouraging people to work harder and “beat” their colleagues, but in the long-term organisations are essentially isolating colleagues from each other. 

Wellbeing at work needs quality relationships  

Surprisingly, our study also found that task interdependence – or working closely with colleagues – didn’t impact the relationships between workplace isolation, loneliness and wellbeing. This showed that simply being around or in regular contact with colleagues won’t reduce feelings of isolation. In order to reduce these feelings, the presence of supportive or meaningful interactions are needed – instead of merely having colleagues at work, it’s important to have friends at work. 

How can organisations encourage meaningful interactions?  

Train your managers to enable supportive behaviours; it might seem that encouraging colleagues to work together more frequently will combat workplace loneliness, however our study actually found that if these interactions are not meaningful, feelings of loneliness will remain. 

Rather than combatting workplace isolation by putting colleagues into teams or groups for tasks, try these tactics instead: encourage employees to take breaks (and managers to lead by example), start social clubs and use your work intranet or instant messenger to find colleagues with shared interests (a pets channel is always a popular one to start with!).  

Does your culture need a shake up? Read this to learn where to start.

Support your employees to support each other 

When it comes to employee wellbeing, organisations need to take an active role in encouraging behaviours and interactions from colleagues that support and include each other. Not only will tackling feelings of loneliness at work have a positive impact on employee wellbeing, but it will also improve your employee engagement and business performance. 

Thanks to Liana for sharing her research – we hope you’ll get to meet and work with her soon! 

Struggling with an employee wellbeing challenge? We can help. 

People Insight can help create your ideal culture for success with our surveys, listening strategies and industry expertise. 

Get in touch today to see how we can help you transform the employee experience.

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