· News

HR heads must find ways to combat loneliness

Nearly a third of UK adults are suffering from loneliness in the latest lockdown, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Between 10 and 14 February 29% of adults reported being lonely at times, up from just 5% for the period between 3 April and 3 May 2020.

Working-age adults living alone are also more likely to report loneliness either “often or always” than retired adults or non-working young adults. 

National lockdowns and more virtual interactions between employees have meant that loneliness is rapidly becoming the next epidemic that HR will have to urgently respond to.

How loneliness affects workers and what HR can do:

Loneliness affecting office workers

How to combat loneliness in remote workers

How to make virtual teams work

Helene Sharrock, head of HR, clothing and home at Marks & Spencer, said that HR must be mindful of the way employee relationships have changed in the past year

Speaking to HR magazine, Sharrock said: “Interactions with our colleagues have in many instances become more transactional, having to schedule a meeting to chat about something that would have been agreed over the coffee machine amongst some general chit chat 12 months ago.

“I know in the teams I support feelings of isolation, loneliness and exhaustion are becoming common themes.”

It's not just those who live alone who are experiencing loneliness either, said Sharrock. Employees who are remote working and juggling young children with little or no marked changes in their environment can also be incredibly lonely.

Helping employees build connections can make a significant difference, she said: “HR has a critical role to play in guiding line managers, setting up support frameworks, and investing both time and money in interventions to support employees.

“One of the things I have done is to engage our teams with a freelance photographer who set them up with some basic mobile phone photography skills, and then set photo challenges to bring back and discuss in a group.

“It was a brilliant way to build purely social connections, with the added benefit of getting people out of their ‘zone’, building creativity and seeing the world a little differently.”

Continuing to socialise when working form home according to Hollen Spatz, vice-president of people and operations at fitness company ClassPass, is also vital. 

Spatz told HR magazine: “With so many people working from home devoid of daily interactions they may have previously had at gyms, school playgrounds or cocktail parties, it’s important for workplaces to create opportunities for socialisation."

ClassPass has tried novel ways to help staff socialise including virtual team workouts, trivia challenges and weekly conversation starters, such as asking employees to share a picture of their childhood sports team.

Beyond playful events, Spatz said employees are also seeking safe spaces where they can have deeper conversations around the important social issues dominating their news feeds including race and social justice.

She said: “Rather than shy away from these topics, we have invited guest speakers, activists and external experts to foster dialogue that helps our team to grow closer and simultaneously gives our team tools and language to have these conversations in the workplace and beyond.

“The result is that whether our team is sweating, laughing or learning, they are doing it together and in a way that helps them feel connected from afar.”