Only the lonely

The BBC has recently done its Loneliness Experiment survey and a recent BBCR4 debate discussed how loneliness contributes to poor mental health, and therefore poor performance at work.  It strikes me that the rise of agile/flexible working could contribute to a feeling of loneliness, so in this blog I’ll look at how we combat this.

The BBC survey tells us that the peak age for loneliness is ages 16-24, with 40% feeling lonely, and that this decreases a little with age.  This shouldn’t be surprising from a workplace perspective. It’s the age that the vast majority of people will start their first job – potentially leaving a secure social grouping from school/College/University to do so and becoming the least experienced (and possibly youngest) person in the organisation. It is no doubt very daunting and loneliness is a natural consequence.  Similarly, there are reports of higher loneliness in those with a protected characteristic in the workplace, and again this finding isn’t too surprising as the very nature of a protected characteristic can itself be an isolating factor in the workplace.

From an agile working perspective, we are asking people to work in different ways – increasingly more remote, with less frequent contact with colleagues and using technology to communicate rather than face to face interactions.  We are also being more accommodating of people’s desire to work flexibly, and aside from those with caring responsibilities, a significant degree of requests come from 16-24 year old’s who arrive with an expectation that this will be the case, those with a protected characteristic for whom agile working represents a partial solution to their needs.

So, in pushing agile working, are we contributing to the growing epidemic of loneliness?

Not necessarily, although the correlation makes some sense.

It’s important to point out that being alone or working alone isn’t the same as feeling lonely.  I’m a very high introvert with a very low need for human contact, and I can quite happily work in silence, in complete isolation, for days on end and not feel lonely.  However, my wife, who’s a very high extrovert, would be climbing the walls after just a few hours of this.

It’s not easy when we both work from home on the same day, I can tell you.

But my point is that loneliness stems from different things other than simply working from home and being away from one’s colleagues; whilst agile working could perhaps exacerbate the feeling, it’s not the instigator for it and lots of people can feel lonely in the workplace for lots of other reasons without working in an agile way.

As organisations we need to be aware of this and put things in place that help to combat loneliness for all workers, whether agile or not.  But we also need to be aware that we may not be able to eliminate it, and that anyone who is susceptible to feelings of loneliness may not take to agile working easily and may need greater support.

Some of the things I’ve seen work in organisations that help people feel more connected and which would help tackle feelings of loneliness if done right:

  • Creating work with purpose, meaning and flow. I’ve written about these things before here and here, and the ability of organisations to create these states for employees is critical in developing the conditions for high performance.  These apply equally to those working in an agile or non-agile way.  This raises the importance of job crafting or job design and involving employees in this.  How much of this do you do?
  • Having a feeling of family at work. Again this is something I’ve written about before but if people get opportunities to socialise and talk to each other on a personal level, they will feel less lonely.  This also applies to all types of worker and can be face to face or online and ideally, both.  What opportunities do you have for your employees to get to know each other better (both online and face to face)? Are you using social media and social events to facilitate this?  Do you know the names of your colleagues’ family and what’s happening for them and how that might affect your colleague?  If not, why not?
  • Talking about how you feel at work. High levels of empathy and emotional intelligence are great qualities to have, and by chance the BBC survey found they are highest in people experiencing feelings of loneliness. Happiness at work is something organisations can help to create and for more of my own views look here. If you can help people to explain what they are happy about and why, you can build on that.  Conversely, if you can help people to explain what’s agitating or worrying them at work, you can work to minimise that.  Emotions in the workplace are often shied away from but far from it – they can be key to unlocking high performance.  Again, this applies equally to all types of workers.  Do you know what’s having an emotional impact on your staff and why?  And if you know, what are you doing about it?

It strikes me there’s plenty we can do to build engagement and create a better employee experience for all different types of workers.  For a different look at this, here’s a 10 minute video explanation of the key things HR can do, have a look at this and talk to me on Twitter (@Gary_Cookson) about what you’re doing.

Article by Gary Cookson Chartered FCIPD, FLPI, MAC, REP – Director, EPIC HR Ltd

(Find out more about Gary)

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