Each year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, yet many people feel unable to talk openly about their mental and emotional wellbeing. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week aims to break stigmas surrounding loneliness, a public health issue that often hides in the shadows but impacts many of us.
In the last three years, we’ve seen a huge rise in remote and hybrid working. This shift has ushered in new job opportunities, and the chance to carve out more family time and a better work/life balance. But it has also upended our traditional workplace cultures, resulting in some employees experiencing tribalism, digital silos and loneliness.
Recent research from Totaljobs has revealed that 60% of people surveyed have experienced loneliness in the workplace. Last year alone, workers took on average five sick days due to loneliness and poor mental health. Moreover, as many as a quarter of employees have actually left their jobs because of feeling lonely.
Loneliness, communication and connections
Loneliness can be defined as an emotional response to a lack of connection. It means that people can feel just as lonely in the office as they do at home. However, remote workers can struggle to feel connected to people they only know virtually, while the blurring of home and work boundaries can lead to feelings of stress and burnout.
In an era where we’re all likely to work remotely at least some of the time, it’s vital that we communicate with each other and check in regularly. Embrace new types of technology such as Slack to keep in touch. Being part of a community, even a virtual one, helps chip away at isolation.
Try asking team members if they are okay. Really listening to the answer can make a huge difference. Remember, good communication is as much about asking questions as it is about listening.
When we make human connections and consider the wellbeing of others, we create motivated employees. If we’re happy and working towards a common purpose, we’re more likely to create a bond that enables us to perform at our best personally and at work. The result is a thriving business with a culture where people are more productive, engaged and loyal.
Invest in wellbeing
Research from Gallup shows the importance of investing in wellbeing at work. Employees who are engaged and have high wellbeing are 59% less likely to look for a job with a new organisation in the next 12 months.
The focus on wellbeing and connecting employees must start from day one. As more new hires are onboarded remotely, the need to connect and engage becomes more fundamental than ever. After all, human beings are social animals and crave interaction. Employees with strong social connections have been found to be healthier.
Ensure your new team members have a buddy to reach out to, or a chat group where they can ask questions. Try to meet them in person to build relationships and to create a meaningful learning culture.
It’s also important to acknowledge that not all generations might want the same things, so being flexible is key. For instance, Gen Z – the newest entrants to the workplace – have been found to be more pro-office than their older counterparts who might have more established working relationships and connections to rely on.
Leading by example
We shouldn’t underestimate the role of leadership in creating the right behaviours. Leaders need to create a company culture where employees feel supported and able to raise issues which affect their wellbeing. Employees should be encouraged to talk openly with their manager, supervisor or someone at work.
Start by asking managers in your workplace if they feel comfortable having conversations with their teams about mental health. Those less prepared can consult conversation guides and seek guidance from HR. You can also work with mental health charities to highlight that it’s okay to seek support and show colleagues they aren’t alone. The charity Mind has devised Wellness Action Plans for those looking to support their teams.
It’s worth remembering that a leader doesn’t have to be equipped to fix a problem. Simply identifying and understanding how to communicate to team members can be the first step in creating a positive and inclusive change.
In 2021, industrial software company AVEVA launched a global initiative called ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ Alicia McCollam, AVEVA’s Global Diversity Inclusion & Wellbeing manager, shared some of their experiences in one of our webinars. Senior leaders, she said, talked about their own challenges in the workplace. “It landed really well across the business team and led to company-wide inclusive, compassionate and empowering storytelling.”
McCollam added that employee happiness isn’t just about having understanding and flexible line management. You must encourage, facilitate and empower employees to create their own “cultural glue”. This doesn't come together by chance, but by having a successfully communicated and executed people strategy, one in which HR and IC work together in order to see the bigger picture.
Maintaining human connections – our top tips:
- Diarise regular 121s for all employees, even if only for five minutes. Keep wellbeing top of the agenda and use/provide conversation guides for leading questions if needed.
- Ask how your colleagues are and really listen. Our active listening blog has plenty of advice.
- Be aware of the support tools available for employees and ensure these are widely communicated and easily accessible.
- Remember that your role is not to fix the problem but to identify any issues and support colleagues. Look for signs that someone could be struggling (camera off, changes in behaviour, becoming more distant) and raise it with a line manager if you’re worried.
- Leaders can share their own experiences of loneliness and mental health as it builds a connection with their employees and role models the right behaviours.
- Run a Wellness Action Plan with your team members.
- Create virtual communities and informal moments to connect; coffee catch-ups, beer Fridays, shared music playlists or hold virtual walking meetings to get out and about together even if you’re not in the office.
- Celebrate success stories – make time to come together and celebrate achievements and hard work or you could risk communicating only when there is a problem or challenge.
Wellbeing is not just an add-on
In conclusion, there are many positives to remote and hybrid working, but we must also be aware of the risks for those who have little interaction with colleagues. We need to keep meaningful human connections front of mind, to avoid loneliness and mental health problems.
To be truly effective and thrive as a business, wellbeing shouldn’t be something we only think about on awareness days. It needs to be part of an ongoing people strategy that includes two-way communication with employees. This is critical for creating a company culture where people are supported, can be themselves and ultimately have a sense of belonging.