The pandemic has kept people apart. What can HR leaders do to help reduce the impact of loneliness as we go forward?
Consider this: More than 40% of employees struggle with mental health issues, and pandemic restrictions left 54% of them feeling isolated.
We were already forming fewer friendships than in the past. Previously, as life got busier, our social network got smaller and smaller. Then, COVID hit. Never before has the entire world been subjected to such collective feelings of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and sorrow. Loneliness became pervasive.
Colleagues were no longer connecting at the water cooler. Physical distancing, working remotely, and lockdowns impacted relationships and our mental health. The ripple impact of this will be felt for years to come.
Not light at the end of tunnel
While the switch to a virtual office with meetings online platforms has allowed for greater flexibility, efficiency, convenience, as well as safety, experts say the lack of social interaction has taken a mental health toll on our teams and workers.
As we head into the possibility of an end to lockdowns and closures, many are feeling fatigued and emotionally drained. The pandemic has made people more cynical compared to the early days of the crisis. And even with the rollout of vaccines across the country, it has done little to uplift the mood, according to an Ipsos poll. In fact, 43% of our employees are feeling pessimistic about a return to normal life once the spread of COVID-19 is contained.
The gradual reopening of society isn’t making social connection easier. Even deciding how to interact with others in our family, community and workplaces has created additional tension. We are in this dilemma where we are closer than we want to be to some people, and we are too distanced from others.
Loneliness is an emotion that brings about “social pain.” It’s the feeling you get when distressed or anxious due to a perceived lack of connection with others when you need it or want it. It is characterized by feeling unwanted, empty, and cut off from other human beings.
Relationships need to exist, fulfill an appropriate role, and be mostly positive, to keep loneliness at bay.
Everyone feels lonely sometimes. When loneliness happens often or becomes chronic, as it did during the lockdowns, it can have a negative impact on our physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
Loneliness in remote work
A pre-pandemic survey as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale in 2019 by Cigna found that 61% of employees were lonely, up 7% from 2018.
In previous decades, work was a major source of friendships and connections. There were company sponsored picnics, sports teams and holiday dances, as well as impromptu water cooler conversations.
For over a year, many have been working from home or in isolation from colleagues. Conversations have been focused on problem solving, and meeting the challenges of the business disruption. Fewer meaningful relationships are being built.
Our average number of close friends whom we can talk with about important issues (such as the coronavirus) has shrunk from three to two, with over 25% of respondents reporting they have no close friends whatsoever with whom to discuss what matters to them, one study found.
Research is showing that loneliness rates are increasing in the wake of the pandemic. Mayo Clinic investigators found a significant increase in loneliness and a decrease in feelings of friendship during the pandemic. According to a Statista 2021 global survey, about 33% of adults experienced feeling of loneliness worldwide, with Canada and the US just under the global average. However, 36% of Americans reported feeling “serious loneliness” post COVID, according to a Loneliness in America report by Harvard University.
This becomes cyclical, as we know that loneliness at work can increase absenteeism and presenteeism and impair productivity, performance, creativity, reasoning, and decision-making even further. That can add to the sense of loneliness. When employers and employees work together to combat loneliness, everyone wins.
What HR Leaders can do to help
HR leaders play an important role in preventing loneliness among their team. One of the 10 elements of organizational culture is social support, however it is often one of the most neglected areas of workplace culture. It is seen as an extra or something to focus on if you have time.
Research shows that it is important for all leaders to increase the right type of communication needed for building social bonds. What is most important is that employees who work in virtual or in-person environments feel a stronger sense of liking and connectedness to their team members when there is a high degree of informal communication between them.
12 ways to combat loneliness
- Encourage regular check-ins and ensure that everyone is connecting as a team.
- Use online tools to keep in touch with each other.
- Develop connection specific strategies for those in emptier worksites as well as those working remotely.
- Host regular team meetings, and don’t make them all about work.
- Add some time for fun and socialization. Look at ice breakers, conversations openers, or gamified challenges.
- Eat lunch together. Exercise together.
- Create walking meetings.
- Be vulnerable. Share some of the challenges that you have faced.
- Reach out and provide emotional support when needed.
- Know how to start a supportive mental health conversation.
- Make yourself available for when employees need someone to lend a friendly ear.
- Promote the use of corporate and community resources, such as your HR department, EAP, or telehealth services for those who may be struggling.
Loneliness is an important issue that has taken on increased urgency in the face of a pandemic. Loneliness will have profound consequences for how individuals continue to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. As our teams find their way forward, it is important that HR leaders not overlook the strategies that can minimize the impact of loneliness on the mental health of those around them.