Donna Reynolds: Loneliness may be costly for business

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A recent blog written by The Stress Management Society discussed the findings of a new report published by Age UK. The report said that loneliness will hit two million over-50s by 2026, a 49 per cent increase in ten years, if the problem is not tackled.

The problem is not confined to this age group; being “often” lonely affects people of all ages to a similar degree although different circumstances tend to prompt it, depending on age. The blog posed the question: “Is it an employer’s responsibility to tackle loneliness in the workforce?”

Unsurprisingly, The Stress Management Society is in favour of employers tackling loneliness, pointing to the impact in terms of health and wellbeing and concluding that “healthier, well-connected employees are not only more engaged, but more productive”. If a more persuasive argument were needed, a report published in 2015, The Cost of Loneliness to UK Employers, launched jointly by the Co-Op and the New Economics Foundation and issued in conjunction on with the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, put the cost of loneliness to employers at a staggering £2.5 billion a year.

However, the concept of loneliness is much more than simply the amount of social contact someone experiences or would like to experience. It involves subjectively quantifying the quality of any social contact they might experience and the degree to which they feel both physically and emotionally disconnected from others. For employees, loneliness can result from circumstances in both the workplace and their personal life with the potential to affect performance, conduct and attendance. However, the causes may not always be known or obvious to them, let alone to their employers and, if they were, are employees’ personal lives ever company business?

An employer’s default position is often to manage, say, the performance and not the person, and there’s nothing wrong with this approach; performance can be objectively measured and clear targets for improvement set – the foundation of a proper capability procedure.

Employers should try to establish the likely causes of poor performance (or sickness absence or conduct issues) but a fear of being accused of prying or an employee’s reluctance to open up and share personal information can make any other approach difficult. The Stress Management Society recommends integrating initiatives to encourage social interaction, including work buddies and training for managers to monitor and identify changes in behaviours. However, success will be largely dependent on just how far the employer and employee are willing to delve into and tackle what can be difficult, painful or embarrassing personal problems.

Employers of disabled employees, as defined under the Equality Act 2010, can’t shy away from this subject and will have to think carefully about the impact of loneliness and whether their duties are engaged under the Act. At the end of last year, the disability charity Scope published the results of its survey which found that chronic loneliness is experienced by 45 per cent of working age disabled people and, as a result, over half said they experienced depression, anxiety and stress. The Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal, day-to-day activities. Those suffering from depression might describe effects such as mood management issues, a tendency to withdraw from social situations and difficulties interacting with others. It is difficult for an employer to successfully argue they did not know or could not reasonably have known that the employee had a disability if that employee has, for example, displayed certain behaviours at work or there has been an apparently unexplained dip in performance.

A disabled employee might be subjected to unfavourable treatment if they were, for example, dismissed because they were not a team player, friendly enough with customers or achieving sales targets without first obtaining medical evidence as to the effect that depression and on-going treatment could have had on performance. It may be a failure to make reasonable adjustments if by applying its policy on dismissal, the employee was put at a substantial disadvantage in that the employee needed his or her medical condition and treatment needs taken into account, something that someone without a disability did not require.

An employer could take steps to avoid the disadvantage, such as obtaining and discussing medical evidence, which might have resulted in there being no dismissal – and perhaps even instigating some of the initiatives The Stress Management Society has recommended.

Donna Reynolds is a partner and employment law specialist with CCW Business Lawyers