Loneliness is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which takes place from the 9th-15th May 2022. Alex Minett, Head of Products and Markets at CHAS looks at how employers can tackle this issue as part of the wider mental health agenda.
Who is affected by loneliness?
In short, anyone can be affected by loneliness. Loneliness triggers might involve; bereavement or relationship breakdowns, moving to a new area or country, and social, community or workplace isolation. Those who are more pre-disposed to loneliness can include individuals with no friends or family as well as minority groups and those who experience discrimination because of disability, race, gender or sexual orientation.
What is workplace loneliness?
For most, work occupies a considerable proportion of our daily lives. While those who work are less likely to feel lonely due to the structure, identity, and social connections work provides, Employers and loneliness, a government report on loneliness at work published in 2021, puts forward three key ways that loneliness can develop:
- Existing feelings of loneliness unrelated to work may be carried into the workplace
- Features of work may trigger or exacerbate loneliness
- The impact of work (stress, long hours) can spill over into our lives and isolate us from others
Aside from the negative experience for the individual, the report estimates that loneliness costs UK employers around £2.5 billion every year. This is calculated by increased staff turnover, loss of productivity or sickness absence.
Mental health in the workplace
While feeling lonely is not a mental health issue on its own, pre-existing mental health problems can exacerbate loneliness. According to the HSE, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 50% of long-standing ill health across all industry in 2021 and had been showing signs of an increase even prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
There has certainly been a notable shift in the focus of workplace health and safety in recent times, with risks of the job to an employee’s physical health starting to share a stage with the risks to their mental health too. Contributing factors to poor mental health that respondents cited to the annual Labour Force Survey include workload pressures, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support.
For individuals, managing loneliness is not a one size fits all approach. For some, loneliness manifests in social anxiety where taking small, unpressured steps in making new connections is key. Mental Health charity, Mind, offers several suggestions on how everyone can tackle loneliness. These include talking therapies which can be useful in opening up and helping to understand feelings. Mind also emphasises the importance of paying attention to overall physical wellbeing by making changes to negative sleep and diet patterns and addressing dependencies on alcohol. All of which can make a positive difference.
How can employers tackle loneliness?
According to the Employers and loneliness, organisations can start by looking at their wider wellbeing and mental health agenda especially when it comes to reducing stigmas and ensuring loneliness awareness is embedded in policies from the get-go. Recognising the triggers for loneliness, such as significant life events, health issues, workplace transitions, and the end of working life for those nearing retirement, will enable employers to look at what support and advice they can offer and work together with employees to find a solution.
The increase in home working and lone workers also puts the onus on employers to reduce the risk of an employee experiencing loneliness and isolation regardless of where they are based. Specific lone worker policies should seek to include recommendations on the amount of direct contact the employee needs to be having with their manager alongside guarantees to ensure inclusion in social events and work-related activities as well as training updates.
Mental health/loneliness champions or first aiders are good contact points for employees who may not feel able to approach line managers first. Specifically trained through nationally recognised courses, the mental health first aider (MHFA) can provide confidential advice or point employees in the direction of where to find it. Employers can also ensure that information on employee assistance programmes or helplines are widely publicised and displayed should workers prefer to seek more anonymous ways of accessing help.
Toolbox talks are another way of delivering information to workforces, in this case by educating them on different types of mental health issues and simultaneously promoting open dialogue. In addition, awareness and training days for managers are helpful for them to gain a more in-depth understanding and recognise the signs in an employee who may be struggling.
At the end of 2021, the HSE launched their Working Minds campaign to bring together a range of support tools and resources to help businesses encourage good mental health. As part of the campaign, HSE is reminding businesses that “no matter where people work, employers have a legal duty to assess the risks in the workplace, not just in terms of potential hazards and physical safety. They should also promote good working practices”.
In order to avoid a new health and safety crisis, there are increasing calls for risks to mental health to be treated with the same significance as risks to physical harm and injury. Committing to making a difference is the first important step for employers. Fostering an open, positive culture and ensuring that workplace policies and practices put employee wellbeing at their core will all reduce the risk of an employee suffering from loneliness.