By Caitlin Bethell, Head of Psychology
Over the last few years, the world has gone through an immense amount of change. The shared experience of going through a global pandemic and the world being put on pause was difficult for most. Not being able to socialise, see loved ones, work or exercise put a toll on the mental health of a lot of us, me and other members of In Diverse Company included. One of the major themes for my own mental health has been how lonely I have often felt.
Loneliness will affect every person at one point in time or another. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme is ‘loneliness’. ‘Loneliness’ can be described as “the pain we feel when our social connections do not meet our needs”. When we often think of those who may class themselves as lonely, we may think of people who live on their own or the elderly. I never thought I would class myself as a ‘lonely’ person. I have a large friendship group, a loving family and a partner I live with, lockdowns were full of zoom get-togethers and walking phone calls with friends in my ears, but I felt so alone.
Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that one in five (20%) workers feel lonely at work on a typical day and almost a quarter of workers (23%) agreed that feeling lonely at work had affected their mental health. I went from working in a person-facing delivery role travelling for work every week to suddenly working from my kitchen table in a small flat in London. The excitement of getting to spend so much time at home after 18 months of solid travel quickly wore off. Not having physical contact or even the opportunity for ‘water cooler’ moments with my colleagues, allowed my loneliness to perpetuate. It felt silly to even say I felt lonely, because in lots of ways I wasn’t, especially when I compared myself to friends who were on their own.
Further research by the WHO found that those aged 18-24 are twice as likely to feel lonely at work than others (39% vs 18%). Younger workers generally agreed more strongly that a lack of contact time with colleagues impacted their mental health at work. 55% of workers aged 18-24 and aged 25-34 agreed ‘lack of contact time with their immediate team’ could impact their mental health at work. With a lot of organisations now shifting to working from home or in a hybrid fashion, loneliness will continue for a lot of people.
There needs to be more acknowledgement of mental health and loneliness within organisations. There seems to be a fear around this and asking if colleagues are ok. It may be that some leaders are unaware of the issue and that it needs to be spoken about to make sure employees feel safe to share when they are not feeling ok. So, what can employers, leaders and organisations do to support employee mental health and feelings of loneliness going forward?
- Have open conversations about how you are feeling. When you show vulnerability as a leader it allows employees to be vulnerable and share where they are too. Speak about mental health in team meetings. When mental health is spoken about regularly, it is normalised, and people will feel able to share when they don’t feel ok.
- Allow different options for working. Ask employees what works best for them, whether it is hybrid working, from home or the office. Some employees may prefer to work from an office, especially those that might not have the right environment at home for a work station, or some may prefer the flexibility of working from home, for example, people who live in the suburbs or those with caring responsibilities who would appreciate getting more time at home. Mental health may form in lots of different ways; your policies need to meet different needs.
- Listen and provide safe spaces. Sometimes people need to just speak or have someone listen without providing them with advice or solutions. Safe spaces can be created when there is trust, so listen without judgment and give people the time to share, vent or cry – whatever is needed.
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