Loneliness At Work: A Growing Issue?

Dylan Loughlin

Guest Blog: Kellie O’Dowd, Relate NI Development Manager

We have all had very different experiences in terms of the pandemic; a sort of ‘Carona Coaster’ of experiences. Many organisations and workplaces like my own have now returned to the office on a full-time or hybrid-working capacity.

While this is working effectively for many employees in terms of gaining some work-life balance, other professionals are feeling lonely at work. This may be because many or all of their staff team have not returned, or they are sharing the workspace on a Rota basis. But this means that for some workers they don’t see the point of going into work to be in an empty office as opposed to being in an empty bedroom/dining room at home.

While there are different types of loneliness which are experienced at different times for different reasons, I think the last two years has thrown many of the loneliness experiences together for people, which can feel a bit overwhelming as one experience can bleed from our personal lives into our professional lives and vice versa.

Loneliness can have a dramatically negative effect on a person’s wellbeing. In fact, according to the charity, Mind, loneliness is associated with an increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and an increase in stress. I think by defining the different types of loneliness and exploring and naming them may help us not feel so overwhelmed by this emotion.

Types of Loneliness

Emotional loneliness may be when you lose someone who you were very close to, or you are in a relationship that is long distance or you have different work patterns.

There is transient or existential loneliness, which is a feeling that comes and goes, and is underpinned by the reality that we come into this world alone and will leave the same way, and that all relationships are only temporary.

Situational loneliness reflects certain times of year that can make people feel lonely, such as bank holidays, Christmas and other special occasions. That feeling that you had starting school or work when you had no friends or acquaintances.

Social loneliness is where someone might lack a wider social network of friends, neighbours, and colleagues, and for me this is what we can work to combat it in the workplace.

Tackling Loneliness In The Workplace

As hybrid working becomes ‘the new normal’, the challenge is how to make people feel included when working remotely. If six out of 10 people are in the office, how do you help the other four feel included?

Loneliness is a function of the affective need for companionship and belonging, and left unaddressed, it can detrimentally affect a person’s self-worth. Loneliness can leave us questioning our value to others, to our organisation and where in life we belong.

I think one of the first things senior managers and leaders need to do is to reframe what productivity means: sitting in front of a screen all day responding to emails is not necessarily more productive than building strong and positive relationships through conversation with colleagues. Research indicates that one face-to-face request is 34 times more likely to be successful than an email.

Organisations need to grow a culture of openness, but in a way that is respectful of their staff’s confidentiality also. There are things I feel comfortable talking to my manager about and one or two of my colleagues but I do not necessarily want the whole office/company knowing.

So ask yourself is the organisation creating opportunities for social interaction? For example through Shared coffee breaks or talking about and including staff where possible when preparing work Rota’s? Does the senior management model good social interaction; chatting about the latest Netflix show, what they did over the weekend, their hobbies, interests in a relaxed, authentic and genuine way? This creates the culture in an organisation and it is tangible when you walk through the door.

Conversations increase interconnection at work and this is vital to wellbeing and productivity. Positive relationships make us feel more energetic and motivated, improving engagement and resilience. But despite the clear benefit of relationships, loneliness remains one of the most serious health concerns we face as a society: it is worse for us than obesity.

Enabling and encouraging meaningful conversations in the work environment is a vital tool in preventing social loneliness, as well as boosting team performance as team members will know each other on a deeper, more personal level, allowing them to have more open, trusting and indeed challenging conversations when required.

So take 10 minutes, have a chat, build and sustain healthy workplace relationships to improve productivity and team wellbeing.

Kellie O’Dowd is the Development Manager on Relate NI’s Sustaining Healthy Relationships Project, and can provide free workshops in the Youth & Community Sectors to support relationships and wellbeing. Relate NI can also develop Workplace wellbeing workshops on request.

For more information visit https://www.relateni.org/relateni-services/sustaining-healthy-relationships/ or contact Kellie at kellieoeodowd@relateni,org / 02890323454

For tailored advice on all aspects of Workplace Health & Safety, Contact Copacetic Safety & People Consultant Lisa Bloodworth