Working from home has lots of benefits, but it also has a dark side, with 20% of remote workers admitting they struggle with loneliness.
While most people feel lonely at some point in their lives, long-term loneliness can be disastrous for your physical and mental health. Studies have shown that long-term loneliness increases your risk of developing a range of serious medical conditions, including coronary heart disease and dementia.
Your remote workers have always been at high risk of feeling socially isolated, but the ongoing global pandemic means that billions of people around the world are feeling more isolated than ever before. According to the Coronavirus: Mental Health and the Pandemic study, almost a quarter of all adults living in the UK have experienced feelings of loneliness during lockdown.
With 88% of UK companies agreeing they have an emotional duty of care to their employees, loneliness is something that employers need to take seriously. As part of Loneliness Awareness Week (LAW), we’re sharing 6 ways that employers can help their remote workers feel less socially isolated, even during these challenging times.
Long-term loneliness is more dangerous than smoking
Loneliness has been proven to cause a range of mental health problems, and can exacerbate pre-existing issues, particularly depression and anxiety. There’s even evidence to suggest that loneliness can make it more difficult to manage certain anxiety disorders such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Loneliness isn’t just a threat to your staff’s mental health – it can also have a direct impact on their physical wellbeing. Long-term loneliness is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and can make a person 32% more likely to suffer a stroke.
Taking into account the physical and mental implications, loneliness increases a person’s likelihood of mortality by 26%, which means long-term loneliness is roughly as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Taking steps to keep your workforce emotionally, physically and mentally healthy isn’t just the right thing to do – it also makes good business sense. If your workforce are unhappy, unmotivated and potentially suffering from a range of mental and physical health issues, then your business is going to suffer from higher-than-average absence rates, low productivity, and poor staff retention levels.
Your workforce is your biggest asset, so it’s vital that you manage that asset effectively – and a big part of this, is paying attention to your employees’ emotional needs.
6 ways to help your employees combat social isolation
Maybe you’ve created a happier, healthier workforce by giving your staff the option to work from home; perhaps you have a handful of employees who work remotely on a permanent basis; or maybe you’re one of the countless businesses who’ve had to transition to remote working in response to COVID-19.
If one or more of your staff are currently working from home, then here’s 6 ways that you can help them manage the loneliness that often accompanies remote working.
1. Make sure your staff know where to go for support
If your company provides access to support services, then make sure your employees know about them!
You need to ensure the contact information for your HR department is easily accessible, and that staff are aware of any mental health champions, first aiders or other trained mental health professionals within your organization.
If your business has a partnership with any external companies who can provide additional mental health support, then you should also ensure their information is available to all of your employees.
2. Enlist the help of supervisors and managers
For large enterprises or geographically distributed businesses, it may be impossible for you to personally monitor every member of staff.
If you’re not in close contact with all of your employees, then you should maintain an open channel of communication with the people who are. Staff who are in managerial positions such as team leaders and supervisors are often ideally placed to identify individuals who may be struggling, and require some additional support.
3. Support parents and caretakers
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work from home with very little time to prepare, and under less than ideal conditions.
Working from home while also taking care of a child can be a uniquely challenging, stressful and lonely experience, particularly since the pandemic has separated many parents from the people who’d usually provide emotional support, such as partners, parents, and friends.
As an employer, there’s steps you can take to make this period less isolating and stressful for employees who are trying to work remotely while also caring for a child.
For more information, check out our step-by-step guide on how you can help parents and caretakers work from home successfully.
4. Provide the tools your employees need to stay connected
Just because you can run your business on email alone, doesn’t mean you should.
For remote employees, having a video or voice call with a co-worker can significantly boost their mood – even exchanging a few instant messages with a colleague can provide some much-needed social contact.
To help your workers feel connected even when they’re physically apart, we’re offering a free six months trial of Office 365, which includes a Microsoft Teams subscription. If you don’t fancy using Microsoft Teams, then there’s plenty of alternatives available, including Slack and Zoom, so you can choose the tool that’s the best fit for your business.
Regardless of whether you opt for Teams, Slack, Zoom or some other communication tool, here’s how you can use your chosen tool to reduce feelings of social isolation:
- Encourage regular check-ins. Team leaders and managers can provide their teams with regular, dependable social interaction by creating a schedule and sticking to it. Consistency is key, as an employee who knows they have a daily 10AM video catch-up with their colleagues or manager will feel much more connected, compared to someone who has a vague understanding that their manager will contact them “at some point” during the day.
- Don’t overlook the importance of face-to-face contact. Instant messaging may be convenient, but it won’t give your remote employees the same level of social interaction as a voice or video call.
- Don’t make it all about work. Even the most dedicated employee cannot work, non-stop from the moment they sit at their computer in the morning until the moment they step away in the evening. Social distractions are essential for keeping your employees happy, motivated and productive throughout the working day, and you can replicate this by providing a space where remote employees can discuss non-work related topics. If you sign up for Microsoft Teams, then you can create multiple channels, including “off topic” channels where employees can post photos of their pets, brag about the delicious burrito they cooked for dinner last night; or share their thoughts on the latest Netflix Original series.
- Consider virtual hangouts. The global pandemic has made many social activities impossible, so why not take these social activities online? Many businesses are already hosting events such as virtual pizza parties, team lunches, birthday celebrations, coffee mornings, and even virtual office parties. While these kinds of virtual hangouts may seem a little forced and cheesy, they can provide your remote employees with some much-needed social contact.
Want more Teams tips? Check out our 6 productivity hacks for Microsoft Teams.
5. Share useful resources
Many charities have produced materials to help remote workers manage loneliness, especially during these challenging times.
By taking a proactive approach, you can ensure your remote workers have useful advice on-hand, if they ever start to struggle. Sharing mental health resources can also open a dialog around loneliness, as not everyone automatically feels comfortable discussing these feelings in the workplace.
There’s plenty of resources online, but the Mental Health Foundation’s guide to nurturing relationships during the coronavirus pandemic is particularly useful for remote workers who may be feeling socially isolated. We also recommend the Foundation’s guides to looking after your mental health while working from home and how to support mental health at work.
6. Unhealthy coping mechanisms: Discourage overworking
Your employees are naturally more productive when working from home. According to the Remote Collaborative Worker Survey, 23% of remote employees are willing to work longer hours, and are 52% less likely to take time off, even when ill.
However, with many social activities currently impossible your employees may be tempted to work longer hours out of sheer boredom, or as a way to distract themselves from the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any extended period of remote working can also begin to blur the lines between work and downtime, until you have employees answering non-urgent work emails at 10PM on a Wednesday night.
With remote employees already at an increased risk of becoming socially isolated, overworking can become a negative behaviour that prevents them from taking positive steps to tackle their loneliness, such as phoning a friend, joining an online support group, or arranging a virtual coffee morning.
To discourage your employees from overworking, you may want to impose blackout policies, where employees are banned from sending emails and instant messages between certain hours. You could also communicate to your remote workers that you don’t expect them to be available at all times, and perhaps even indicate that working outside of regular hours is frowned upon.
#LetsTalkLoneliness: Share your experiences
During previous LAW campaigns, conversations about loneliness were taking place every 5 seconds, and the campaign was trending on Twitter for 10 hours!
To join the conversation, use the official #LetsTalkLoneliness hashtag, and don’t forget to follow the Marmalade Trust on Twitter.
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