Author: Kathleen Schulz
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an emotional toll on employees and compounded stress and loneliness in an already stressed and increasingly lonely workforce and social isolation. The continued fear, uncertainty, upended routines, financial pressure, and challenge for parents trying to balance work and child care from home have impacted our daily emotions—reducing our joy, increasing our stress and magnifying our feelings of loneliness.
Why employers need to care about loneliness
Loneliness is often difficult to describe and diagnose because the feeling is wholly subjective, but put simply, it’s a feeling of inadequate social connections. Loneliness is further defined as a complex set of feelings that occur when intimate, social needs are not adequately met, which can be different from depression, being alone, or feelings of solitude. It has more to do with a person’s quality of social relationships rather than their quantity.1 It’s possible to be in a crowded room and feel lonely, and also to be by yourself but not feel alone.
Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity. But many people haven’t given as much attention to strengthening connections between people as others have on reducing tobacco use or obesity.2
While some might question why employee loneliness is an employer’s issue, it’s important to understand the impact on wellbeing, healthcare costs, engagement, and productivity. Loneliness is associated with an increase in the hormone cortisol, which leads to:3
- Disrupted sleep
- Poor immune function (which can increase the potential for getting sick)
- Higher blood pressure
- Mental health issues such as depression, decline, and dementia
Lonely workers say they are less engaged and less productive, and report lower retention rates. They are two times as likely to miss a day of work due to illness and six times more likely to miss work due to stress. Remote workers are more likely than non- remote workers to always or sometimes feel alone.4 Acknowledging that most people spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it becomes the employer’s opportunity to tackle this issue proactively.
Loneliness and remote work
In Gallagher’s COVID-19 Pulse Survey on Employer Responses, 82% of responders mandated remote work where appropriate. This massive work-from-home shift happened without the normal evaluation of the role, individual’s work performance, equipment planning or discussions surrounding expectations for working in a remote environment. While employees highly value flexibility, according to the Buffer 2020 State of Remote Work Report,5 loneliness is one of the biggest challenges to working remotely.
Is there a sweet spot for remote work?
Yes. Data suggests there is a sweet spot to maximize engagement for remote workers. Highest levels of engagement are when working remotely three to four days and in the office one to two days. Lowest levels of engagement come from those working remotely none of the time or all of the time.6 As employers think about reopening workplaces and revisiting policy related to remote work, consider the value of continuing with a remote work policy, but also the power of in-person contact and quality social connectedness on loneliness and overall engagement.
Don’t “force fun” in loneliness
Recognizing that loneliness and a lack of connection are serious workplace issues, some well-intentioned organizations have mandated social activities. This “forced fun” is meant to build teamwork and have a positive effect, but can sometimes have the opposite effect of being awkward and inducing anxiety. In some cases, this can further fuel loneliness and erode employee engagement, especially if there is not sensitivity regarding how these activities may impact child care, personal commitments and schedules, or commute time. Additionally, while social interaction is good and healthy, people often hesitate to engage with others for fear of rejection or getting “stuck” and, therefore, unable to end an interaction.
Organizational and employee wellbeing: It's all connected
COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges, but a silver lining may be the advancement of conversations regarding emotional wellbeing and a new understanding of how employee wellbeing and organizational wellbeing connect. The epidemic levels of stress people are experiencing can reduce their human resiliency— a person’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Lower resiliency can impact loneliness. Increased loneliness can raise the potential for burnout, driving down employee engagement, which is linked to overall wellbeing.
People bring the most to work when they feel connected to the mission and the people around them. A company that fosters social connections as a strategic priority and values the positive emotions around compassion, joy, and caring is more likely to experience greater productivity and engagement while protecting against illness, loneliness, and burnout.
This is an excerpt from the Gallagher Better Works℠ Insights COVID-19 Report: Volume 4.