This is part 2 of a double blog post on the subject of ‘loneliness’. You can read Part 1 here.
Understanding the problem
If human beings are “essentially social beings…who function better when we have the opportunity to interact with each other in the flesh ,” the solution, then, is theoretically simple: ensure more high quality social contact with real people, and ideally not online.
Recognising the problem
Loneliness presents in many different ways. Look out for those who might fit the stereotypes mentioned above, but also look for the outliers. Here there is no substitute for a department head or team leader with their finger on the pulse of those for whom they are responsible.
This doesn’t mean all senior members of staff need to be dramatically ‘touchy-feely.’ It does mean they need to keep their eyes and ears open and learn enough about their team to spot things going wrong and have a sense of why.
Dealing with the problem
It is re-assuring that the UK government has recognised the problems of loneliness. In their 2021 guidance note, Employers and Loneliness , they set out some practical ways to support those who are lonely, and how doing so mitigates damage to business.
The report makes good and useful reading and is an excellent starting point for revising policies or putting new ones in place. The preamble also suggests that the costs of loneliness to UK businesses could be £2.5 billion annually, so it is definitely worth taking note!
Amongst other things, recommended strategies include addressing
‘Culture and infrastructure: Identifying what really matters to employees and aligning with corporate values and embedding loneliness into other wellbeing and welfare activities.
Management: The kinds of support and guidance which can help managers to identify and help the people working for them who are experiencing loneliness and the training that managers might need.
People and networks: How people have used networks to tackle loneliness including whilst working remotely.’
Each of these, and others to which the guidance refers, is worth exploring in greater depth and separately. The point, though, is that a hybrid approach is likely to be very effective.
It also means that deliberate choices can be made which make it easier to spot lonely colleagues and help them be less lonely. And for those individual people, it should be easier to access help, either formally through HR or informally with colleagues.
A good way to start
Above all, the key to tackling the (often hidden) scourge of loneliness amongst colleagues is to remove stigma. Many people still see loneliness as their own personal failure. It can be embarrassing to admit you’re lonely and it can be awkward to ask for help.
Try and strike a balance. Don’t assume everyone is lonely – they won’t be. And don’t assume that the life and soul of the office party has a brilliant life outside of work. They might not, and for reasons you can’t even imagine.
Nearly everyone has experienced loneliness at some point, so don’t be surprised if a colleague is lonely too. As with everything else, treat individuals as individuals. Avoid jumping to conclusions. And use natural common sense. It won’t cost much, but it will make a difference. It might even save a life.
- Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in London, quoted in the Telegraph newspaper in November 2020: “Humans are essentially social beings and we function better when we have the opportunity to interact with each other in the flesh. Social isolation can contribute not only to depression and cognitive decline, but also significant physical ill health and reduction in life expectancy.”
- Guidance – Employers and Loneliness – Published 8 May 2021 www.gov.uk/government/publications/employers-and-loneliness/employers-and-loneliness