The introduction of hybrid work arrangements has meant many more employees are now experiencing loneliness at work. For R U OK? Day, HRM looks into some of the ways HR and leaders can respond to this.
Despite the physical separation of people during the early months of the pandemic, there was a certain sense of togetherness in the fact that everyone was facing a similar situation. We were talking about the same things and sharing the same uncertainties and fears. But while we initially found some reprieve in virtual connections, the physical barriers soon started taking their toll as experiences of loneliness at work became more commonplace.
As Dr Vivek Murthy, who has served as US Surgeon General under Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden, noted in an article for the Harvard Business Review: “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilisation, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”
Murthy wrote this long before the pandemic, but he could very well have been talking about our current experience of hybrid workplaces and socially distanced communities, both of which have the potential to wear down our psychological resilience and physical health.
Murthy wrote that chronic loneliness has been linked with physical consequences similar to smoking 15 cigarettes each day. Both shorten our lifespans. And yet we don’t see the same public groundswell around bolstering social connections as we do around encouraging people to quit smoking.
“If people run away from loneliness, we’re going to have huge issues down the track,” says Dr Michelle Lim, scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together and clinical psychologist.
“Addressing loneliness is an opportunity to increase workplace productivity, yet we only want to deal with the pointy end of mental health where problems arise.”
It’s time we got serious about discussing loneliness, not only in social and domestic contexts, but where we spend up to a third of our waking lives – our workplaces.
Residual loneliness at work
Many of us experienced heightened loneliness when we were forced to stay within the four walls of our homes. And for many people, that feeling has never waned.
Research from the University of Wollongong (UoW) and USYD, which surveyed 2000 Australians from July to December in 2020, found that even though we’re now free to live a relatively normal social life, the lingering impacts of the restrictions and new ways of working have caused a fundamental shift in people’s social habits.
Residual loneliness is affecting nearly as many people as those who reported feeling lonely during the first surge of lockdowns. Forty eight per cent of people reported feeling lonely “at least some of the time” during lockdowns and 41 per cent have felt the same way since lockdowns ended.
Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trends Index found that 59 per cent of hybrid workers and 56 per cent of fully remote workers have fewer work friends since working away from the office.
A similar amount (55 per cent hybrid and 50 per cent remote) feel lonely as a result of this.
“When we feel included, we’re less physiologically stressed; we’re less likely to feel depressed or anxious; we’re more likely to be able to fight infection and be in better physical health. All health regulation behaviours go up.” – Dr Michelle Lim, scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together and clinical psychologist
There are plenty of reasons for this. A lack of physical proximity is an obvious answer, but there are also people who find digital interactions to be challenging or cumbersome, the UoW/USYD research found. For example, they might be slow typers, or don’t enjoy seeing their own face on screen.
This leads to a collection of shallow or tactical social interactions that lack richness.
“Real connections often occur during incidental, in-person moments of communication,” says Melody Ding, Associate Professor, University of Sydney (USYD).
“That’s often where my best research ideas come from. I bump into someone and have a random chat. Or it could be a moment where you notice your colleague is struggling. You might not have that opportunity on a Zoom call where everything is much more structured and formal.”
Loneliness at work can impact employees’ ability to concentrate and it can lower their performance and organisational commitment.
Chronic levels of loneliness can also lead to high stress, and have been found to impact people’s abilities to emotionally regulate themselves, make informed decisions or come up with out-of-the-box ideas.
That’s why it’s critical that we consider loneliness now, as we start designing hybrid work models for the future.
Our colleagues make all the difference
Dr Caroline Knight, Research Fellow at the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University in Perth, was interested in getting a sense of how the recent mass shift to hybrid work impacted workers’ social health.
Alongside her colleagues Doina Olaru, Julie Anne Lee and Sharon Parker, she conducted research on hybrid workers in Western Australia between May and June last year. They found that when workers received support from their managers, it didn’t significantly alleviate their loneliness.
In contrast, receiving help from their colleagues while in the workplace positively and significantly predicted reduced loneliness, even more than colleague support received when working from home.
“You feel more comfortable speaking to a peer about things that aren’t going so well, but with a manager it’s more about them making sure you have access to all you need,” says Knight. “It can be very practical and professional. Whereas colleagues can be friends too.”
Unsurprisingly, Knight and her co-researchers also found that people felt lonelier when working remotely (22 per cent) than in the office (19 per cent).
In-person contact triggers “our full suite of psychological responses and neural synchronisation required for optimal human connection,” she says.
“You make much deeper neural connections. You create a deeper memory of them. When people meet in person, they have access to a much more diverse array of social cues, as well as more extensive cues from the surrounding environment, such as location, smells, the atmosphere.”
While some people are concerned that these new ways of working could lead to a generation of employees who are unable to form deep social connections, Knight is more optimistic.
“We’re more likely to get better at interacting with people online. With the development of things like the metaverse and virtual reality, it might become easier to pick up social cues as the experience becomes more immersive and replicates real life.
“The main difference is that we’ll need to be proactive and deliberate in ensuring we meet our needs for belonging and relatedness when working remotely by connecting with people virtually in informal ways.”
Case study: how Medibank is building connection
Medibank is one organisation leading the pack by facilitating intentional connections at work.
“Loneliness is impacting more people across Australia than ever before,” says Karen Oldaker, Senior Executive, Wellbeing and Community at Medibank.
“Our research from October 2021 shows more than half of the 1200-plus people we surveyed felt lonely on one or more days during a typical week.”
Medibank has set a 10-year plan to help its customers, employees and the broader community to address loneliness.
The first phase of its 10-year plan is about raising awareness.
“We know there is a very low understanding around what loneliness is, how to identify it in yourself and how to identify it in others.”
Like some other organisations, Medibank has an online wellbeing hub for both customers and staff, packed with tips for addressing wellbeing needs. However, it didn’t stop there.
Medibank created its own podcast aimed at destigmatising loneliness. We Are Lonely, hosted by TV personality Myf Warhurst and Dr Frederic Kiernan, interviews well-known public figures about their experiences of loneliness. So far, guests have included actor Hugo Weaving and musicians Darren Hayes and Tash Sultana.
“It’s all about starting a conversation,” says Oldaker. “Destigmatising loneliness is really critical right now.”
Medibank also put a lot of thought into sparking meaningful connections between colleagues in a hybrid environment, such as setting up ‘coffee roulette’ catch-ups between people from different parts of the business, connecting people who live near each other to engage in social activities together, and setting up online masterclasses to infuse some fun into people’s days.
“The main difference is that we’ll need to be proactive and deliberate in ensuring we meet our needs for belonging and relatedness when working remotely.” –Dr Caroline Knight, Research Fellow, Centre for Transformative Work Design
To entice people back into the office, Medibank set up a ‘Connection Festival’ in May, which included six days of fun activities.
“It brought to life some of the things we’d been doing virtually, such as a book club, fireside chats, a hiking group and having lunch together,” she says. “There were competitions, free food, ‘Pinot and Picasso’ painting nights… it was all about having fun.”
Medibank also offers ‘feel good grants’ which employees can apply for to set up a wellbeing initiative of their choice, putting people at the heart of its wellbeing plan.
“In a period where we expected people’s perceptions of their work relationships to be disrupted due to lockdowns and hybrid working, we’ve seen this remain stable.”
Learn how to facilitate moments of connection in your workforce and combat loneliness at work with AHRI’s ‘Managing a Hybrid Workforce’ short course. Sign up for the next course on 7 October 2022.
Permission to connect
Another reason connections wane remotely is that we often feel the need to be head down when working from home. We often don’t even find the time for a lunch break, let alone a casual chat with a colleague.
“It can feel like all you’re doing is meeting your targets and there’s no time to connect with people,” says Knight.
“You get tunnel vision with what you’re doing. And if permission to connect doesn’t come from the top down, people can feel like the organisation is just paying lip service.”
This hyper-productivity mindset is a “recipe for disaster”, says Oldaker.
“Employers need to pause and remind themselves that socialising is as important as meeting KPIs.”
Employers and HR have a responsibility to facilitate and encourage “circuit breakers” that remove people’s productivity blinkers from time to time, reminding them to reach out to their peers to offer or seek support.
Ding suggests organisations set up specific programs targeted at at-risk employees, such as those exiting the workforce.
“I’m from China originally, and my dad still lives there. He worked for universities for his whole life. Over there, universities have an entire department dedicated to retired staff. Their job is to look after their wellbeing.
“They organise events, competitions, dinners and excursions. That’s a really good system because he’s still part of a professional community even after he has retired.”
We also need to think about how work is designed, says Knight.
“We tend to design jobs which are efficient, but not necessarily great for the individual. We don’t always think about the human needs.
“It’s important for managers to think about not only the job that needs doing, but also about the individual as a whole. How connected are they? Are the tasks challenging? Is the job stimulating? And does their work allow them to build networks?”
Lim says there’s also huge benefits in offering employees more autonomy.
“We know from psychological research that when we take people’s ability to make choices away, they aren’t as helpful to the organisation,” she says.
“There’s also a good economic flow-on effect. When we feel included, we’re less physiologically stressed; we’re less likely to feel depressed or anxious; we’re more likely to be able to fight infection and be in better physical health. All health regulation behaviours go up.
“From an HR perspective, it’s about building someone’s capacity to build close relationships as opposed to addressing deficits. It shows [employees] you care about them and want them to thrive and flourish.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of HRM magazine.