The lonely worker: Loneliness in the age of remote working

14 January 2021

Do you ever feel lonely?

We are all social beings living in a social world. Feeling disconnected from others is our body’s natural way of signalling a need to connect.

Speaking to more people or being surrounded by others is often not a panacea for many who experience feelings of loneliness. For many, these feelings may stick around longer than one would hope.

Loneliness is a subjective feeling, often described as not feeling in tune with others or feeling misunderstood by people around you. You can feel lonely in a crowd, lonely in your environment, lonely in a marriage, or unheard by others around you.

We should never presume that a person who lives alone while working from home is lonely, or that a remote worker who lives with their family must have all the social connection they need. Loneliness does not discriminate – it can affect anyone, regardless of their gender, age, or socioeconomic status. Loneliness is now identified as the next major social, community, economic, and public health issue in Australia and negatively affects our health and wellbeing.

The rise of the remote workplace

There has been an increasing shift towards remote working over the past decade, as businesses adopt more flexible work arrangements. Remote and blended work practices have increased exponentially since the onset of COVID-19—from 20% to 45% in Victoria and from 20% to 39% in New South Wales—adding new challenges and barriers to our ability to connect. This comes as growing evidence tells us that greater numbers of Australian workers are suffering from feelings of loneliness.

Workplace loneliness arises from perceived deficiencies in a person’s social relationships in the workplace. Research indicates that loneliness negatively impacts on both employees and employers. Loneliness in the workplace is associated with poorer job performance and satisfaction, lower organisational commitment, and reduced creativity.

Employees who are lonelier (compared with their less lonely counterparts) make more errors, take more sick leave, and express a stronger intention to resign.

Is remote work working for you?

Interest in how we relate to each other in the workplace is growing. An estimated 37% of Australian workers feel lonely, while nearly a quarter do not engage in activities to connect with their colleagues.

Workplace loneliness affects all employees across different demographics, seniority, and industry. The economic cost of loneliness in Australia has yet to be comprehensively quantified, but we should expect this to be significant enough to warrant our immediate attention.

The New Economics Foundation Report indicated that loneliness cost employers up to £2.53 billion per year in the UK through the cost of working days lost due to poor health associated with loneliness, cost of caring responsibilities due to poor health associated with loneliness, low job satisfaction and productivity and high staff turnover.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced more barriers to forming and maintaining meaningful workplace relationships from the acceleration of remote work practices, to increased casualisation of employment. We have to now think about how we relate to each other in a remote and blended workplace.

Tips to combat loneliness at work

Reflecting on the incidence of loneliness in the remote workplace, Dr Michelle Lim, Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together, offers this advice: “If you’re not feeling connected to your workplace, it’s important to look within your inner circle of friends and family, and your local community. And be selective. A lot of people speak to their partners about work issues, but your partner might be the worst person to speak to, whereas a friend might be ideal.”

“Lonely people utilise health services more, they’re sick more often, if they get injured they recover a lot slower because their bodies are under more stress. So if an employee is lonely and their vulnerability is increased by remote working, then something needs to be done.”

Working together is an inevitable step in combatting loneliness in remote and blended workplaces. “It’s about making sure someone has your back. If that culture is created, it will be better for the person concerned, less stress for the manager and better for the organisation,” says Michelle.

Some practical tips you can try to connect with your colleagues and team include:

  • Check in with your team on a regular basis. Schedule regular catch-ups, as well as making the time to touch base at informal times throughout the week.
  • Reach out and ask what supports your teammates need to make remote working a success.
  • Avoid the temptation in a home office environment to overwork. Manage your time as much as possible and keep to your standard work hours.
  • Make time to get away from your screen at regular times throughout the day. Take a walk in nature, or call a friend.
  • Get creative about the forms of communication you are using for each type of interaction. Sometimes we sit behind emails and other messaging services because they are the most convenient and practical, but often, phone or video calls can provide a more personal touch.

Where to from here?

Loneliness in the workplace is readily acknowledged as an issue but much work is needed in order to comprehensively address this. If we can identify the factors that drive and protect people from feeling lonely at work, we can build a more socially cohesive workplace that supports our individual health and wellbeing.

More recently, we called for a national response to address loneliness in Australia. Our white paper, Ending Loneliness Together in Australia, speaks about loneliness in the workplace – and makes recommendations on how a National Workplace Initiative can assist business to keep employees socially connected and well, and to safeguard employees from new workplace practices such as remote working.

Our social needs are complex – and there is not a one size fits all solution. The implementation of any solutions or changes to workplace practices should be steered by the employees’ needs and preferences, as well as the organisations’ ability to deliver and implement.

Addressing this issue requires more than having people interact with each other. Social relationships come with negative and positive implications for the individual. Knowing more people may reduce social isolation but may not address loneliness, and in some cases, can cause more harm than good. Investments and efforts to address loneliness should always be steered by the latest evidence in order to ensure a positive impact.

This article first appeared in a conversation between Dr Michelle Lim and WayAhead in November 2020. Read the original article here.