As we enter month seven of the pandemic, social distancing has taken its toll, and more people report feeling lonely. Loneliness is a health risk that impacts your well-being and work. A study from the mobile coaching platform BetterUp found that lonely workers were less satisfied with their jobs, received fewer promotions, switched jobs more frequently, and were more likely to quit their current job within the next six months.
While the pandemic enhanced the depth of the problem, loneliness has been a growing challenge for the workforce for a number of years, says Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp. “It has been described as an epidemic,” she says. “Forty percent of the people in our study reported feeling lonely.”
Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer for the performance management platform Workhuman, says many people are dealing with a Home Alone experience. “For a while, being home by yourself can feel like a treat,” he says. “Then the reality begins to set in. We’re beginning to see a longer-term impact on mental health, and that affects productivity and efficiency. A healthy organization can’t achieve without healthy people.”
BetterUp’s study found that certain types of employees are at greatest risk of being lonely, including those who are single and childless, with fewer people in their private life. Well-educated employees with graduate degrees also reported higher levels of loneliness, as did those who identified as anything other than heterosexual.
It’s important for managers to have a sense of each person’s home life, says Rosen Kellerman. “If they have team members who are living alone or don’t have family nearby, they are at higher risk,” she says. “Keeping closer tabs on them is important.”
The signs of loneliness are often subtle and include social withdrawal, lower levels of energy and optimism than normal, and a decrease in productivity or work quality. If you sense an employee or coworker could be suffering from loneliness, there are things you can do:
Create Opportunities for Meaning
The single most impactful step to take to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building meaning, says Rosen Kellerman.
“Managers can help by connecting employees to a shared sense of purpose around work,” she says. “Managers don’t always understand what is meaningful to their employees, but they need to take the time and gain an understanding by talking about it. We see an improvement in workplace outcomes when employees feel connected to the meaning of the work they’re doing.”
Leaders should also connect employees to the project outcomes. “Use collective wins and celebrate the entire team,” says Rosen Kellerman. “When you have a success, call out as many individuals by name. Recognition creates a sense of mattering, which is a close cousin to meaning.”
Find Times to Check In
Create time to connect as human beings. “People get tired of Zoom,” says Rosen Kellerman. “Get on the phone and have a conversation to catch up on life. It should have nothing to do with work. We’re biologically wired for connection.”
During these calls, it can help if leaders are willing to be vulnerable, says Pemberton. “Share your own journey in the midst of all of this,” he says. “You can say, ‘I am managing a lot. My mom is here. My children are not independent yet.’ When employees hear a leader opening up, it helps them be more comfortable with their own feelings.”
Foster Colleague Connection
As best as possible, find ways to replicate the kinds of social connection that would be happening organically in the office. For example, Workhuman added a parent channel on Slack where employees can share the impact the pandemic has had on them. Create places where employees who share an interest or concern can connect.
Another option is to implement virtual social hangouts. Start a virtual book club, happy hour, yoga session, or poetry slam. If possible, provide available office space or designate an outdoor gathering area. “A change of pace or scenery can help,” says Pemberton. “Put a lot of protocols around this, but it could become an important option when an employee needs it.”
Offer Mental Health Assistance
Finally, make sure your benefits package includes access to mental health professionals for counseling by telephone. “Make sure employees know they have this option,” says Pemberton. “Many of your employees are dealing with a lot. Many are not fine—far from it.”
Many companies won’t return to the workplace until 2021, and loneliness may continue to rise. “Have your antenna up,” says Pemberton. “Employee well-being is another responsibility of leaders. Give it the right amount of attention.”