Loneliness in the workplace is an issue that employers shouldn’t duck - Donna Reynolds

“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.” That was the stark warning from Russian playwright and short-story writer, Anton Chekhov, but I’ve been married far too long to make the grave mistake of commenting on that little nugget of wisdom. However, he was also a practising doctor and he once said, “medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress”. Feeling on far safer territory now, perhaps he knew something then that employers are coming to realise now: loneliness in the workplace is an issue and, if not tackled, it will have a profound effect on workers’ mental and physical health, their productivity and, consequently, the bottom line.

Donna Reynolds is an Employment Partner with Blackadders.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Loneliness Employer Leadership Group and following consultation with employers, published Guidance: Employers and loneliness, which is intended to help employers address loneliness among their workers.

Many employers will no doubt think, “that’s private. I can’t start prying into how someone else might be feeling” or, “what does how my workers are feeling have to do with me, if it’s not impacting on their work?’” Well, the financial case alone is hard to dispute: The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5 billion ever year. These costs are primarily due to increased staff turnover (64 per cent, £1.62 bn) as well as lower wellbeing and productivity (26 per cent, £665 million), the impact of caring responsibilities (9 per cent, £220m) and ill health and associated sickness absence (15 per cent, £20m).

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If that were not enough, the Guidance reminds us that Covid-19 “demanded a huge shift in how and where we work…The large-scale shift to home working has provided welcome flexibility and work-life balance for many. However, the reliance on virtual connection, reduced opportunities for networking and shared activities has had an impact on social connections.” As such, employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workers and must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. For example, research has found that how or where a person works (think homeworking, long-hours, Zoom fatigue, fewer in-person interactions with co-workers) can create feelings of persistent loneliness that potentially increases the risk of a person developing new or triggering pre-existing health issues including alcohol and drug dependency, anxiety and depression.

As for whether personal emotions are off limits for employers, many of us are finding it increasingly difficult to clock out from what is going on in our personal lives (and how it makes us feel) as we clock in at work. When this impacts on work performance or attendance, an employer should be discussing the causes with the worker. However, before it becomes an issue, there is nothing wrong with an employer asking, in the right way and at the right time, how its workers are feeling, provided it then uses this information in the right way. Indeed, the Guidance advocates a culture whereby “loneliness awareness” is no longer a taboo subject and both employers and workers are as willing to talk about and tackle the issue in the same way as they talk about healthy eating and exercise as part of, say, the Health Working Lives Award programmes.

So, what can employers do to help tackle loneliness at work? The Guidance identifies five key themes: culture and infrastructure; management; people and networks; work and workplace design; and wider role in the community. Suggestions include workplace surveys, a loneliness “champion”, setting up support groups and signposting workers to external support.

Acas advises maintaining quality social connections but advises against a one-size-fits-all approach. It suggests talking and listening to workers, with the help of representatives, if there are any.

However, a word of caution. Far from feeling lonely, some workers are at their happiest when on their own with fewer interactions with their co-workers. It may be done with the best of intentions, but persistent attempts to engage with a worker may, in fact, be unwanted, causing what was a happy relationship to turn sour with all sorts of unintended consequences. I would need to ask my colleagues in our family law team, but that may explain why some marriages end in divorce.

Donna Reynolds is an Employment Partner with Blackadders.

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