Loneliness at work: a psychological construct?

The onset of the digital age has brought with it many brilliant things – flexible working, automatic payroll systems and the ability to hold virtual meetings anywhere in the world.

It has also, however, become increasingly easy to communicate solely through email and hide behind ‘virtual curtains,’ which can leave us feeling lonely and disengaged.

If you don’t feel lonely are you still lonely?

A recent study, the Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance report, a survey of 672 employees and 114 supervisors, published in December 2018, found that loneliness depended largely on a person’s outlook or perspective.

The report’s co-author, Professor Sigal Barsade from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, says that loneliness is, essentially, a “psychological construct” and that people can be just as lonely in a busy office, surrounded by colleagues, as they can working from home. “Loneliness is a self-constructed assessment that an individual makes, based on their own psychological and social needs,” she notes.

Furthermore, an employee didn’t need to have a large group of colleagues to connect with and prevent them from feeling lonely. Just one co-worker who they had a good bond with could be enough to stave off loneliness.

“Self-reinforcing”

One of the main issues is that loneliness was found to be what Barsade describes as “self-reinforcing,” that is, it can become ‘the norm’ and can make people become sensitive, distrustful and socially inept.

“The paradox is that people who are lonely are often the ones who seem the most aloof and least likely to reach out to others,” she says.

They are also less likely to feel engaged at work, which can affect their performance and wellbeing. “The greater the sense of loneliness, the lower the performance and the more likely the employee is to take time off sick,” says Barsade.

How employers can help

So what can small businesses do to prevent their employees from feeling lonely and disconnected from their colleagues and the company?

Carl Reader, chairman of d&t accountancy and business advisory firm, says loneliness can be a very tricky area for small businesses to manage, especially as they may not have a dedicated HR team to help them.

“There are a combination of factors that need to be looked at – workplace behaviours, team cohesion, and general mood. If a business suspects through these observations that there may be an issue, they can then look to address it accordingly,” he notes.

Creating a inclusive workplace

The first step, Reader says, is to identify the problem then try and create a more cohesive and inclusive working environment. “One of the things that we deliberately do is mix up teams – so that staff members can get to know other people than just the people that they were ‘given’ when they joined,” he notes.

They also run a number of staff events, from after-work drinks to dragon boat racing, to help employees connect with each other. “We encourage activities such as fantasy football leagues and running clubs, and also try to ‘matchmake’ in away days and team meetings,” Reader says. 

Keeping employees on top of company issues and stakeholder analysis can also help them feel more involved with the company, according to Reader. “Staff engagement is inherently linked to the feelings that people have when they come to work, so it is important that staff are at the top of any ‘stakeholder analysis,’” he comments.

“We also use an anonymised service from a company called Workbuzz to help us review our engagement levels every six months.”

Smaller teams for stronger wellbeing

The report helps them indicate what steps can be taken to boost employee engagement levels. “One step that we have taken is to reorganise our business into a ‘pod’ structure of much smaller teams, which has helped team members understand the impact, both good and bad, that they can make,” Readers says.

Rob O’Donovan, co-founder & CEO of CharlieHR consultancy, says making sure you let employees know that you care about their wellbeing is also important. “When building and growing a company, focusing on people is the most important thing managers can do,” he says.

“We try and encourage are employees to take adequate rest during winter – and don’t use all their holiday up over summer – as well as providing time, space and encouragement for them to focus on their wellbeing.”

James Routledge, co-founder of Sanctus mental health consultancy, says small businesses can help stave off loneliness by creating an environment where employees can talk about things freely and without judgement.

“The biggest thing companies can do is to create an environment where stress and mental health is talked about openly – that can be a huge relief in itself,” he notes. “There’s no quick fix but a long-term commitment to reasonable working hours and open dialogues on mental health and feelings can make a huge difference to an individual’s overall health.”

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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