In the world of work today, smart device communication is replacing physical conversation. Whether you are stationed at a brick and mortar office or working remotely, phones, tablets and laptops are frequently robbing us from opportunities to connect in person with our peers and co-workers. Unfortunately, this has been contributing to a loneliness epidemic in employees that is having negative impacts on businesses across the UK.
Our methods of communication are highly efficient, but effectiveness is often lost in digital translation. We are experts at multi-tasking, but have lost our ability for asking. To do lists, projects and strategies are being addressed online, instantly without breaking a sweat; yet the essence of the message is hardly expressed.
Too much rhyme? Perhaps, but hopefully, the message has sunk in: our modern day technology, designed to facilitate instant communication and collaboration in real time, is a causal factor of the Epidemic of Loneliness. Staff are feeling more and more alone and disconnected at work.
The statistics on workplace loneliness
According to a 2019 study from CV Library, over half of UK employees report feeling lonely in the workplace, with the main reason being that they felt they had little in common with their colleagues (reported by 44.4% of those surveyed).
Similarly, a recent study from Totaljobs found that 60% of the employees they surveyed reported feeling lonely at work. They also found that loneliness contributed to negative factors at work such as heightened stress levels, lower self-esteem, poor sleep habits, and less productivity. Figures such as these are only set to rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in more remote working and isolation.
Learn more: How is work set to change after coronavirus?
Also, ever heard the saying "it's lonely at the top"? Although research affirms this statement, new studies indicate an ever more substantial proportion of employees "at the bottom" of the corporate food chain are suffering from workplace loneliness too. So feelings of loneliness and isolation may be resulting from employees with less power feeling that they are unappreciated or not truly part of the company.
Responding to the loneliness epidemic
In the Harvard Business Review, the former Surgeon General of the USA cited work loneliness as an escalating health epidemic: "Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity."
In January 2018, Theresa May created a new ministry, you guessed it, the Minister of Loneliness. However ridiculous this may sound, research has shown that over 9 million people in the UK suffer from this loneliness disease.
Where does the responsibility for workplace loneliness lie?
The general narrative regarding workplace loneliness places the responsibility for solutions firmly on the part of companies, employers, and those in charge. Expert advice to employers include suggestions of employee assistance programmes, creating fun cultures, and ramping up the social event schedules.
Unfortunately, these ideas can fail in practice. How excited are you about the upcoming year-end function? Did you enjoy the last parkour team building event?
Learn more: Building effective teams at work: 7 top tips
My point exactly. The truth of the matter becomes clear when looking at all those lonely horses (read: employees) refusing to be lead to the waters of engagement by their companies and managers.
The loneliness and isolation of employees can be addressed by the companies they work for. However, we can all take responsibility for it and alleviate loneliness for ourselves and the people we work with.
Strategies for counteracting workplace loneliness
Here are 12 tactics you can use today to combat workplace loneliness. As a bonus, your actions may just create a ripple effect on others dealing with the same issue:
1. Develop offline connections
Mentally unplug from devices a few times during the day. Your phone or tablet can do without your constant attention. Switch off all notification settings for a bit and become more aware of what is transpiring around you. Reaching out to a more tenured staff member for advice could be the beginning of a valuable mentoring relationship. On the other hand, if you are that seasoned member of staff, why not take a lonesome “deer in headlights” newbie under your wing? This can be a bit more difficult to achieve remotely, but switching to a phone call with a colleague instead of messaging or emailing can help you connect away from your desk for a while.
Make time to celebrate the successes of the team or even individual personal milestones of co-workers by organising impromptu get-togethers. A quick a beer or cappuccino after work - or an online gathering - reinforces existing relationships and act as informal gatherings of inclusion to the wallflowers and socialites in the team.
3. Walk a mile...
In someone else's shoes, that is. The art of mastering empathy starts with being a good listener and affording the other person your undivided attention. If you're working remotely or wanting to reach out to a remote colleague, you can also do this with a video call.
Refrain from starting a serious conversation with a colleague who wants to pour out their heart to you, if you only have five mins until the next meeting. Also initiate action without asking: If you know your colleague is burning the midnight oil, having coffee ready at their desk when they arrive in the morning or messaging to ask how they are can do wonders.
Learn more: British coffee culture: is it beneficial for work?
4. Move those desks
Are you sitting with your back to your colleagues just because of the office layout? Sit on the other side of your desk, even if for a short period, to encourage "face time" with those around you. Better yet, move your desk if possible to amplify the perception of being more approachable. Depending on the size of the team (and the amount of paperwork and pot plants on your desk), something like musical chairs every few weeks could be an option to encourage connections between different members of the team. This is not primary school; you don't need to sit next to the same person year in and year out.
To replicate this whilst working remotely, make sure everyone has their audio and video on in team meetings for a greater sense of togetherness.
Learn more: How employees can stay connected while working from home
5. Remove your earphones
Get out of the music bubble every once in a while, or permanently if you can. If someone had the option to engage with another person, the one with earphones connected 24/7 would not be a top choice.
6. Get up from your chair
Instead of posting on your digital wall, have an actual conversation with a co-worker or two. Also, emailing or texting someone sitting less than 10 yards away will do nothing to alleviate your sense of isolation – get up and engage in conversation (or if you're remote, give them a call!)
7. Go on a lunch date
Of course, meaning a professional one with a co-worker or team member. “If you want to be part of that tribe or organisation, you have to contribute to it,” says Pauline Rennie-Peyton. Don't wait to be asked to lunch, ask someone out to lunch. This may entail temporarily "divorcing" your work spouse to connect with other colleagues.
8. Win them over with food
Food is not just the way to a person's heart... bringing any form of sustenance (muffins are foolproof) to the office will transcend any lone ranger into a popular butterfly. Moreover, don't forget the allure of a big bowl of Maltesers on your desk to attract attention and conversation from others.
9. Join in or join together
Does your company sponsor a sports team like volleyball or action cricket? Join in and have some fun with your colleagues. Alternatively, find an activity that you always wanted to do like learning another language or becoming part of a book club and then invite your co-workers to participate with you. Informal co-worker groups together participating in events or leisure activities is a great initiative to break down boundaries and pull people out of isolation.
10. Buddy up
Finding an “office bestie” is not just a nice thing to have. Such a relationship also has an impact upon our health and job performance. “Do you have a best friend at work?” is in fact one of the questions Gallup poses to survey respondents to determine overall workplace wellbeing. According to their research, employees with strong social connections at work make more discretionary efforts with their jobs, resulting in better motivation, engagement and increased performance levels.
Attending networking events, whether it's a business breakfast or Q&A webinar, is especially conducive for remote workers and freelancers to "step away" from their isolated environments and have some human contact with others.
12. Stop tweeting, start speaking
Loneliness in the workplace can only be eradicated by making a concerted effort to redevelop our social (not social media) skills and learn how to interact with our peers and co-workers. Choosing conversation over mere observation will provide those crucial incidents of social contact during our workdays at the office.
What are you waiting for? Speak now or forever hold your "tweets."
Written by Fiona Sanderson
Fiona is Marketing Manager at myhrtoolkit. Her areas of expertise include HR systems, productivity, employment law updates, and creating HR infographics.