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How can HR support employees experiencing loneliness?

The Mental Health Foundation found that during successive lockdowns, loneliness was almost three times that of pre-pandemic levels. As more of us return to old routines, including heading back to the office, we might assume that levels of loneliness and isolation will begin to drop.

After all, we know that being employed reduces the risk of loneliness. ­Those who are employed are less likely to report feeling lonely often or always (5%) compared to those who are unemployed (15%) or economically inactive (8%) but this would oversimplify the problem.

As identified in a government report on employers and loneliness, most jobs and work environments increase the opportunity for connection with others.

And yet, the workplace has changed significantly over the last few years. With more employees working remotely or in a hybrid way, employers must work harder to create human connections.

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In the context of the workplace, loneliness refers to feeling disengaged and disconnected from work and peers.

This lack of connection with peers can lead to feeling detached from an organisation and an increased risk of depression, anxiety or stress.

The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5billion every year, primarily due to increased staff turnover as well as lower wellbeing and productivity and ill health and associated sickness absence.

As many organisations establish new ways of working, we must create workplace cultures that connect one another. We have an opportunity to evaluate and evolve how we support our staff, including those experiencing loneliness.


Actively listen to your people

Given all that has taken place over the last couple of years, understanding your employees, their preferred ways of working and what causes them to feel lonely is more important than ever.

HR must take the lead on this and work with leaders to create a workplace that is fit for the future.

We can improve our understanding of this through anonymous workplace surveys, working groups, wellbeing champions and wellness action plans.

As employers, we must listen non-judgementally to what our employees are telling us and be prepared to act on the needs of our people.

For those who continue to work from home, supporting human connections is more vital than ever. Our guidance for ways to support mental health whilst working from home can be used to reduce feelings of isolation and help stay connected.


Understand and champion intersectionality

In 2022, we should be free to celebrate our intersectionalities whether our gender, age or race. But what happens when those facets of our identity are used against us, intentionally or not, leading to isolation and separation?

People of colour, black people and those from a minority ethnic background are more likely to say that they don’t feel that the workplace is inclusive and feel pressure to change their behaviour to fit in.

Research reveals a negative impact on some employees’ mental health when they feel pressure to change their behaviour, including feeling isolated, excluded and anxious.

As black people and people of colour return to the office they may well have to revert to ‘covering’ behaviour’ – where they actively obscure or tone down their thoughts, opinions, feelings and appearance in an effort to fit in – when working remotely enabled them to be themselves in a safe space.

Feeling marginalised in an organisation can lead to feeling excluded and disconnected and reduce the quality and quantity of relationships.

Organisations can help redress this by supporting staff networks, which offer ways of coming together to support different intersectionalities.

For example, our leadership team recently sponsored the creation of a new employee resource group for the LGBT+ community and allies – a safe space for all to come and share their thoughts, learnings and support.

Organisations must also champion diversity and inclusion with projects that deliver inclusion and equity, removing barriers and promoting proactive change to create psychologically safe workplaces that care about everyone's experiences and take action where it is needed.

In 2020 we established our anti-racist programme and action plan, Project Sapphire, which continues to be sponsored by our chief executive and has resource to deliver on our commitments and support everybody to build an anti-racist culture in MHFA England.


Empower managers to support their teams

When you consider that most adults spend nearly a third of their time at work, it’s no surprise that people joke they spend more time with their manager than with their family.

Joking aside, this line of communication between employee and manager and the openness and trust within the relationship can be vital in preventing symptoms of mental ill health going unchecked and unmanaged.

By equipping people managers with the knowledge and tools to recognise the signs of poor mental health, HR teams can help ensure that manager can support an employee before an issue escalates.

Loneliness can be difficult to talk about due to the perceived stigma and often, may not be the presenting issue. It is key to remember that loneliness can affect anyone no matter how many people surround them at home or in the workplace and no matter how happy or fulfilled a person may seem.

Take time to check in with everyone in your team as it could make all the difference to someone's mental health and wellbeing and in some instances can save a life.

MHFA England offer a range of training from the full Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course to shorter courses such as Mental Health Knowledge for Managers.



Sarah McIntosh is director of delivery at MHFA England


In support of Mental Health Awareness Week every day this week HR magazine will be publishing an article tackling the theme of loneliness in the workplace - find more tips on mental wellbeing here. See professional guidance from Mental Health UK here.