A new study shows that many people feel lonely at work and suggests we need a wider discussion about isolation at work that extends beyond remote working.
There was an interesting British Red Cross study out last week about the impact of Covid on people’s mental health at work. Of course, there have been a lot of Covid-related studies about work and some of them present contrasting findings. What you find can depend a lot on what you are looking for.
The study was looking at loneliness at work. It found that almost half of the workforce (43 per cent) feels lonely at work, but Covid increases in home and hybrid working have improved their relationships both inside and outside work. Two fifths (43 per cent) of home or hybrid workers said they had become closer to colleagues as a result of Covid, compared to a quarter (26 per cent) who felt more distant. Moreover, a third (32 per cent) of senior managers said they were frequently or always lonely.
There has been a lot of focus on the impact of homeworking on mental health, fears about isolation and so forth. Covid, of course, meant that everyone was isolated and sometimes the studies – or the way they are portrayed – confuse increases in anxiety which may be linked to Covid itself, worries about family, homeschooling and so forth rather than working from home itself. During Covid those who work from home became more visible because everyone was doing it – there was greater equality between those who were already working from home and those who usually worked in the office. There were more check-ins – at least by the employers who understood the need for them – and more understanding of the home-related issues that affect work.
Are we rowing backwards on this now? Is the gap between how we treat home workers and how we treat office workers – in terms of recognition, visibility and so forth – becoming wider again? Have those check-ins now fallen by the wayside because a lot of people are back in the office and they are not seen as essential?
It’s time-consuming for managers to check in on individuals, of course, and when you are in the office you may get bogged down with spontaneous meetings and the like. Hybrid working presents different challenges than those presented if everyone is working in one place or everyone is at home.
It’s hard to retain the benefits of what we learned during Covid in a very busy, turbulent world, but the result will be that some people will get left behind. There are things they can do to increase their visibility – and some of these things can be taught – but if it is just down to those individuals there will be little progress.
The loneliness study and other similar pieces of research suggest many people feel lonely and isolated in the workplace, with managers lacking support, no matter where they work. That needs to be addressed. It’s not a remote vs office argument. This is a wider issue about employee engagement, manager support and how we work, not just where we work.