A new survey highlights the problems of loneliness at work. It’s not a new problem, but perhaps now we are taking notice.
There has been a lot of discussion about isolation and loneliness since Covid, mainly – when it comes to work – related to homeworking. Social connection is such a vital part of what it is to be human. But it looks like the loneliness at work problem is much more pervasive than just working from home. Indeed a recent survey from the British Red Cross found that almost half of the workforce (43 per cent) feels lonely at work, but that Covid increases in home and hybrid working have improved their relationships both inside and outside work.
Research out this week from Glassdoor shows workplace social lives have not recovered since the pandemic, with younger people most likely to feel lonely all or most of the time at work. Nearly six in 10 employees with less than five years of work experience say this is the case for them. That figure falls slightly to 47% for those with six-10 years of experience and then drops dramatically to just 15% for employees with 11+ years in the workforce. In fact, one in four (24%) of this group say they are never lonely at work. Some 25% of workers would like to socialise more with colleagues, with the figure rising to 34% of employees under 35.
Glassdoor argues that making social connections is a huge part of feeling a sense of belonging at work and has an impact on levels of motivation and engagement.
Some might argue that these figures show that remote and hybrid working are not working, but it is not as clear-cut as that as the British Red Cross survey shows. What does seem clear is that different strategies may be needed for different groups. Rather than ditch policies that are overwhelmingly popular with much of the workforce, there needs to be more investment in finding ways to combat loneliness at work, a phenomenon that did indeed exist before Covid, but which was mainly invisible.
Covid has shone a spotlight on a range of different issues relating to how we work. Before Covid workplace social life consisted in large part of after-work drinks. While it might provide some time to socialise outside the office, it certainly wasn’t nirvana. Certain people were excluded, for instance, people who don’t drink, people who have to rush home due to caring responsibilities and the like.
Moreover, there are many ways to form social connections – through volunteer work, mentoring circles, networking groups, training days, celebration events and so forth. But these have to be carefully planned and the benefits are hard to measure in purely monetary terms. Nevertheless, many of these don’t get around the day to day need for social contact – even if it’s just to chat about what was on Eastenders last night. Zoom meetings don’t often enable the kind of chit chat that oils the wheels of communication. Chit chat sessions could be scheduled in, of course, but the problem is that anything that has to be purposefully scheduled in is not as much fun and can seem forced.
And then there’s technology. While people are groaning under the number of different communications platforms it’s often the simplest that are the best – things like instant messaging, although there are dangers in leaving a trail of personal information at work.
Loneliness is a hugely difficult challenge for employers. And it’s hard to consider it outside of the current political and economic circumstances that many people find themselves in in a cost of living crisis, things that employers cannot solve. What the survey shows is that what is a big issue for some is not such a big issue for others – that different groups in the workplace – and none of these is, of course, homogeneous – require very different approaches. For each employer that will have different implications, depending on numerous factors, including location and team dynamics. The Covid focus is just the start, but it’s good that we are talking about it now.