Employers can combat workplace loneliness, even while working from home

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Work pressure can have an adverse effect on an employee’s mental health and result in increased feelings of loneliness; the coronavirus outbreak is providing the greatest stress test of the impact of isolation on the workforce.

Indeed, 61% of people reported that they feel lonely, according to Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index, which was released before COVID-19 made its way to the U.S. Contributing factors to this feeling of loneliness include increasing use of technology, more telecommuting and the always-on work culture.

“The percentage of people having daily in-person, meaningful connections with other people continues to decrease,” says Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. “We know that technology also creates issues in preventing us from developing those meaningful contacts.”

The report showed that heavy social media users, younger people between the ages 18 to 22, and men are among some of the loneliest members of society. Some of the causes include a lack of social support and infrequent meaningful social interactions, negative feelings about personal relationships, poor physical and mental health and a lack of balance in one’s daily activities, according to the Cigna report.

Loneliness can have a direct impact on an individual’s ability to work. Indeed, lonely workers say they are less engaged, less productive, and report lower retention rates, according to Cigna. These workers are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work due to stress. About 12% of lonely workers say they believe their work is lower quality than it should be. Lonely workers say they think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers. Remote workers are more likely than non-remote workers to always or sometimes feel alone.

“We’ve all felt lonely at one point or another in our lives,” Nemecek says. “What we’re really talking about are people who have more chronic or persistent loneliness. It’s a disconnect between our sense of the connections with others that we desire and the connections we actually have in reality.”

Nemecek spoke about the impact of loneliness on workers both before and during the coronavirus pandemic and what it means for employees in a recent interview.

What strategies can employees utilize to avoid becoming lonely as we continue to work from home?
Now that we’re working from home it’s important that we all take time to understand that we can become more lonely and make efforts to reach out and talk to one another and take time to have conversations about things other than work. Have a virtual coffee break with a coworker where you spend time talking about what’s going on in your life. Share any successes and failures and what is going on at home with the family. Have those meaningful connections so we can continue to take care of our social health.

What employee benefits should employers implement to combat worker loneliness?
Employers have the opportunity now to leverage the time people are engaged through work to create a culture and encourage the behaviors that allow people to make and maintain those important social connections. Examples of workplace programs that work to support this include colleague resource groups, or employee affinity groups, which are opportunities for individuals to get together and share common experiences. There are opportunities in just leveraging company intranets and the ability for people to share with each other what’s going on in their life outside work.

Why should employers pay attention to workplace connectivity?
People who are lonely are feeling less productive. They feel their work is lower quality; they are more likely to miss work and more likely to leave for another job. It’s important as employers now work with a workforce that is working from home and is more socially distant that we really take time as an employer to create a culture and leverage the opportunities that are available to make social connections and emotional health and wellness an important part of what we’re promoting in the workplace.

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Workplace culture Workplace management Employee communications Employee engagement Employee productivity