Remote work isolation | How employers can help combat loneliness

Written on 12 February 2021

While the benefits of remote work are seemingly boundless, often overlooked is the isolation and disconnectedness that it can cause. New research, in fact, has found that almost half (46%) of UK workers have experienced loneliness while working from home, with women and younger workers most susceptible. 

Against this backdrop, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week – loneliness – could hardly be more apt. 

The week has shone a spotlight on the universal experience of loneliness and how we can all play a part in reducing it. For employers, it has presented a prime opportunity to bring these conversations into the workplace, consider who might be at risk, and think about ways to raise awareness and support staff.

Risk assessments for remote work

While many companies have been hasty and proactive in their implementation of proper measures for remote staff – equipment, cybersecurity and adjusted meeting schedules all spring to mind – the risk of a deterioration in mental health as a result of reduced social interaction has been largely neglected.

What’s more, due to the radically different nature of remote work, it simply hasn’t occurred to many organisations to apply the same health and safety rigour for homeworkers as they would for office staff.

So, as part of a bid to tackle loneliness among the workforce, people teams should consider the possibility of a traditional-style risk assessment.

While aspects of physical health such as ergonomics should of course not be neglected, this process should be dominated by areas of remote work that could pose risk to the individual’s mental health. For instance, things like workload, communication structure, and the proportion of team-based to individual working should all be considered.

While the outcome of this process will look different for each employee, some common solutions could be to tailor daily schedules to the individual’s needs and desires, implement an increased number of non-work-related meetings, and increase the frequency of one-to-one catch ups with the individual’s line manager.

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Spotting the signs

While risk assessments can be effective, an objective, box-ticking approach doesn’t necessarily always cover all bases, particularly in a realm as nebulous as mental health.

With that in mind, the fight against loneliness requires organisations to also equip themselves with more qualitative forms of analysis.

However, it’s almost a given that employees are less likely to be forthcoming with mental health-related matters, and so it falls to the employer to adopt a keen eye and spot the signs when they present themselves. 

As the key enforcer sitting between the senior leadership and the wider workforce, middle-managers are critical here. Any bid to establish a more compassionate, mental health-conscious culture should centre around them, including the provision of comprehensive training to develop their soft skills and overall perceptiveness when it comes to such matters.

In order to achieve the greatest effect from such an initiative, managers should conduct regular, informal, one-to-one meetings with each individual, in addition to reminding them that they can reach out for support should they ever need to.

But outside of this, the training will also, theoretically, enable managers to recognise signs of struggle in areas such as the quality of the employee’s work and their level of enthusiasm in work-related meetings.

Additionally, employers should consider a range of other key channels to offer individuals an outlet in times of need. This may include surveys (such as OfficeVibe) distributed to each employee, or simply the communication of key contacts such as Mind and Samaritans.

Keeping communication alive

Perhaps the most-commonly cited side-effect of the transition to remote working is the shift in communication norms, and with good reason. While perhaps taken for granted pre-pandemic, the absence of regular check-ins is felt strongly by many individuals.

In fact, in a 2021 survey of 2,000 remote workers, three in five reported low-quality communication with their co-workers. Further, more than three-quarters (77%) agreed that better communication leads to a better work culture.

Personality type no doubt plays a role in how much this less frequent communication impacts individuals – introverts are less likely to feel negatively about lower communication levels. On the whole, however, it’s well-accepted that a lack of communication can contribute heavily to feelings of isolation and loneliness among remote workers.

While this can, of course, be somewhat attributed to the natural limitations of a remote dynamic, employers can compensate greatly for this with a conscious and proactive approach.

At the day-to-day level, this can be as simple as offering a meeting structure which contains regular formal and informal catch-ups with an individual’s direct manager and their wider team. For many, this is likely to scratch the itch for both social interaction whilst rekindling a general connectedness to the purpose and vision of the organisation.

On a wider scale, employers might consider developing a second meeting structure, this time for less-frequent, all-company meet-ups. Comprising a blend of leisure and business-based activities, these gatherings will allow employees to enjoy an occasional change of scenery and reconnect with their colleagues on a social level. 

With summer right around the corner, now is the perfect time to seize opportunities to bring people together.

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