As mental health was brought to the forefront during the pandemic, loneliness emerged more – and organizations still want to take steps to reduce loneliness.
Back in 2018 and 2019 and before the dramatic shift toward remote and hybrid work, research by Cigna found that loneliness was already a prevalent issue. At the time, they found 61% of Americans classified themselves as lonely and that loneliness is closely tied to one’s mental health.
With isolation, mental health issues and stress made worse by the pandemic, loneliness has since been on the rise. Though many companies have pivoted to offer hybrid or fully remote work, which are by and large beneficial for mental health, they aren’t without their challenges. Remote work often offers fewer opportunities for meaningful interaction and relationship building – unless employers work to intentionally and continually foster connection among teams.
Impact of loneliness
Loneliness is a risk factor for poorer cognitive performance as well as depression, both of which impact one’s work performance and engagement. It also contributes to and is a product of mental health issues, which is one of the leading causes of long-term sick leave. A survey done by Calm of full-time employees found that their overall productivity decreased by 50% when they were affected by mental health challenges. Cigna also found that lonely workers think about quitting twice as often as their non-lonely counterparts. While it’s easy to categorize loneliness as an individual issue, it has been found to be contagious and can impact a team as well as a company’s culture.
On the other hand, long-term studies have found that those with stronger social relationships are happier, healthier and have a longer lifespan. Research from BetterUp found that employees who experience high levels of belonging have a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, a 75% reduction in sick days, and are significantly more likely to recommend an employer. These benefits could result in an annual savings of $52 million in productivity alone, for every 10,000 employees.
Here are three ways to address loneliness.
Formalize initiatives to create connection
Employers can start by offering a variety of opportunities for building connections among teams. New or younger hires are more likely to experience loneliness, especially when they’ve been onboarded remotely, which is one of the reasons why mentorship programs can be beneficial. Employee resource groups (ERGs) can help foster a sense of community and belonging over shared interests or goals. These groups provide significant value to organizations so they should be recognized and rewarded, as well as given the tools to succeed. Some companies use paid volunteer days to encourage teams to get together in person. There’s also a case to be made for offering the same benefit to remote workers who volunteer on their own. For instance, researchers at the University of California San Diego found that doing good deeds or acts of kindness helps reduce loneliness and promotes a sense of purpose. Cigna found that teams with shared goals or a shared sense of purpose not only feel less lonely but also more engaged at work.
All of these avenues for connection are best utilized when there are formal structures and processes in place to ensure they are inclusive and successful. Internal chat and collaboration tools, when used well, can help remote organizations more effectively facilitate these initiatives. They can also be an excellent avenue for managers and even employees to recognize a colleague’s accomplishments, which can foster a sense of pride and belonging, as well as improve motivation and focus. They’re also an important tool for sharing feedback, which fully remote employees say they receive less of than their never remote counterparts and which can influence whether they feel included or not.
One of our clients, Electronic Arts (EA), executes this incredibly well. They have a new group of fully remote interns that start several times a year. Not only does EA offer a number of team-building activities for their interns, but they incorporate Slack for collaboration and employee recognition. This has a noticeable impact on their engagement levels in comparison to companies that do not utilize these tools effectively.
Broaden mental health understanding
Loneliness and mental health go hand in hand, and a robust and well-rounded mental health offering is no longer just a “nice-to-have.” As wellness practitioners we feel strongly that companies should also view mental health holistically.
For example, we know that eating a Mediterranean-style diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, seafood and lean meat, and low in processed food and sugar, is linked to lower risk of depression. There is ample evidence showing how lifestyle interventions like regular exercise or mindfulness and meditation practices can help reduce and manage stress, anxiety, depression and mental health disorders. Mental health services are incredibly important, but so is educating teams about the various lifestyle factors that influence mental health and offering resources, and in some cases incentives, to help with adoption.
Truly supporting a team’s mental health also means creating a psychologically safe work environment where mental health conversations are destigmatized and normalized so that employees feel comfortable discussing concerns. When leaders and managers openly discuss mental health and meaningfully check in with their teams to see how they’re doing, it can make a huge impact. According to a survey by Talkspace, employees who say their managers take steps to protect their mental health are significantly more likely to find their work fulfilling and much less likely to feel stressed or burned out by work. Cigna also found that employees report feeling less lonely when they can be their true selves at work and their employers promote good work-life balance.
Embrace wellness for team building
Because loneliness affects the health of an entire organization, team-building should be a goal of every employee well-being strategy. Workplace wellness programs that promote and reward healthy behaviors like eating well, moving more and prioritizing self-care benefit a participant’s mental health. However, a key benefit that’s often overlooked when implementing these programs is the incredible team-building opportunities they can provide.
Team-based wellness challenges for example can be a great tool for fostering connections and bringing teams together. For us, the challenges we run are virtual, but 88% of our participants surveyed since the start of the pandemic felt more connected to their colleagues due in part to the camaraderie that’s built through working towards a common goal. In our experience, these programs have the highest participation and engagement when leadership is involved, and when participation and achievements are publicly recognized and rewarded.
It’s clear that workplaces with a strong sense of belonging and that have a culture of well-being have employees that are more engaged, have higher levels of productivity and less attrition. Fostering this type of culture involves factoring belonging into the overall wellness and communication strategy of the organization. As more companies begin to recognize the importance of mental health services and expand on their offering, it’s important to consider how loneliness and mental health go hand in hand.