Loneliness and isolation have become growing workplace concerns as more people work remotely for at least part of the week. Thirty-six percent of Americans report feeling serious loneliness, and 65% of people who switched to remote work during the pandemic said they felt more disconnected from their coworkers.
Between all that and offices amending reopening plans because of the omicron variant, there has never been a better time for companies to strengthen the connection between their employees. And there’s a strong business case for them to try, as mental wellbeing can impact employee engagement and productivity.
While companies can offer benefits related to mental health, individuals can also play a role. You don’t need to be an executive or even a people leader to help create a culture that makes people feel less alone.
Normalize the conversation around loneliness
Not having in-person social connections can manifest in negative emotional and physical symptoms, such as a change in blood pressure, lower immunity, difficulty concentrating, and mood swings, according to Melissa Doman, MA, a Denver-based organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist and author of “Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health At Work.” Before companies can implement tools or solutions for employees, she said, they need to normalize the conversation around feeling lonely.
“You have to first pause and acknowledge the impact of loneliness,” Doman said. “Many people don’t want to talk about being lonely because there’s a stigma you’re being needy. It’s important to normalize it, talk about it, and then look at the tools to manage it.”
Signs to watch for
The onus to ensure people’s wellbeing doesn’t lie solely with managers — who may also experience feelings of loneliness — but across organizations. Yes, the conversation can begin from human resources or the C-suite to set a tone, but anyone can check in with coworkers without it being invasive.
“Asking colleagues how they’re doing is not intrusive and doesn’t have to be an HR conversation,” Doman added. “You don’t have to be a certified therapist to ask someone how they’re doing. It’s showing care.”
Before asking, it’s important to understand signs someone may be feeling heightened loneliness. On one hand, they may reply less or offer shorter answers than normal; show changes in mood or become more irritable; start cancelling meetings or show up to meetings consistently late; or not have work done on time. Conversely, they may reach out more, seeking more social connection. This can start a conversation, but trust needs to be in place before that can happen.
“Wellbeing doesn’t feel invasive to most people if there’s trust,” said Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup and co-author of “Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams.” “You have to start with what builds trust. Building a good culture means an organization is creating situations to get people to know each other. If we don’t know that, it’s hard to help.”
Questions to ask and tools to help
While a more serious conversation may eventually happen with HR, managers and coworkers can lead by example and talk about their own challenging situations and ways they seek help for stress, anxiety, or loneliness. Remind teammates it’s OK and even recommended to take breaks to exercise, get fresh air, or eat a healthy meal. Most of all, teams can stay connected.
Utilizing “smart questions” to reach out to someone who seems withdrawn or is expressing signs of loneliness can help start a conversation and get to the root of what’s going on, according to Pallavi Yetur, a licensed mental health counselor and emotional fitness instructor at Coa, an online mental health studio. Some examples of smart questions include:
- What has this been like for you?
- What can I/the team do to support you?
- What should I/we look for to know you are bothered by something?
- How do you like to be cared for during a tough time?
- What would make you feel included and connected?
- How comfortable do you feel sharing your thoughts and experience with the team or your manager?
“Being really inquisitive and understanding each person’s needs, there is space for that in company culture and I think it’s necessary,” Yetur said.
Many companies also have employee assistance programs to speak with a licensed therapist in a confidential setting.
Bringing people together
Harter said his team has studied both in-person and virtual social connections among coworkers. While replicating actual face-to-face time proves difficult, even virtual interactions help.
“Having periodic in-person time helps,” Harter said, “so it’s making sure those events happen.”
That can include things as simple as asking people how they’re feeling, creating an emotional fitness survey, discussing highs and lows of their day or week, and allowing people to have more lighthearted or personal conversations for the start of meetings. Working remotely prevents people from having those spontaneous desk side or hallway run-ins, so creating space for that becomes more important when you meet via video. Scheduling weekly team social time is another way to create moments, even if people are physically apart.
Organizations can also set up wellbeing messaging or reminders over Slack to help avoid loneliness by:
- Practicing self care and self compassion.
- Reducing screen time or logging off social media.
- Exercising, meditating, or going for a walk to get fresh air.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Joining local community or online groups.
- Seeking mental health support.
- Requesting more flex time and taking PTO.
Make wellbeing a priority
The lines between work, home, and family have blurred. Like it or not, talking about and managing various aspects of mental health in the workplace can no longer be ignored.
“Asking about emotional and mental health will be required going forward in professional relationships,” Doman said. “We’re never going back to where we were. Not talking about mental health would be negligent. These conversations will hopefully lead to someone taking the steps of using the resources for their mental health.”