Employers warned of risk of ‘sleepwalking’ into a society lacking human connection

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​According to the latest ONS data, 3.3 million people in the UK are often or always lonely. Due to lockdown and the social restrictions put in place due to coronavirus, this figure is expected to rise for 2020.

In a report from professional services firm Aon that collates these findings with related figures from the UK government and other sources, Charles Alberts, Aon head of health management, has warned of the risks and responsibilities employers face regarding staff wellbeing in light of the pandemic and an increased reliance on technology.

“While technology allows us to work, live and socialise more flexibly, it limits our opportunities for ‘real’ human interaction,” Alberts stated.

“We may be technologically connected, but we are sleepwalking into becoming the least humanly connected society ever.”

At work, loneliness has been found by Gallup to cause a higher rate of absenteeism (37% higher than those who are not lonely), more risk of accidents (+49%) and a 16% decrease in profitability.

Across the UK, the New Economics Foundation estimates that the combined cost of employee loneliness is £2.5 billion each year.

On average, in 2019, full-time workers spent 37.2 hours per week working which, over a five-day period, equated to almost half (47%) of an individual’s waking hours.

Businesses therefore, Aon argued, have a responsibility to address people’s feelings of loneliness.

Speaking to HR magazine, Alberts said: “For some the concept of close friendships at work seems odd, but we should remember that we spend the majority of our waking hours during the week at work, and the work environment forms an important part of our social wellbeing.

“Work helps to shape our identity, gives us a sense of purpose, supports us financially, and also extends our social network. [...] even chit chat at the watercooler has benefits for business – small gains in social cohesiveness at work can lead to large gains in productivity.”

In a set of recommendations from the firm, employers were encouraged to strengthen collaboration between siloed teams; develop a mentor scheme; recognise and celebrate individual achievement; and ensure the social integration of new-starters.

The importance of creating social spaces, both in person and online, was also stressed, as was the availability of flexible working.

Alberts added: “Employers can take positive actions to help their people, while supporting their organisational needs. Loneliness can come in so many shapes and forms, and this will resonate with many, especially now.

“COVID-19 has shone a light on our innate human need for social interaction and I’m optimistic that as we look forward to new ways of working for many, more employers will recognise the opportunity they have to add social wellbeing as a strategic objective.”

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