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Workplace Loneliness: A Silent Epidemic

Research shows that the average person spends 900,000 hours of their life at work; that equates to approximately 1880 hours a year, 152 hours a month and 38 hours a week. More worryingly, research also shows that many people are unhappy at work, with over 50% of UK employees surveyed admitting they would rather be in a different career and confessing they wish they could change jobs.

Pairing these two pieces of research together then, it should come as no surprise that mental health issues in the work place are becoming more common. Due to the significant amount of time we spend at work, unhappiness in the work place can have a significant impact on our quality of life. Loneliness has been identified as one of the main contributors to unhappiness in the work place. It is something that is often overlooked as employees suffer in silence, often too embarrassed to speak out due to the social stigma that is attached. Additionally, many sufferers believe it is a personal problem and not something which should be shared as a concern with their employer. In turn, many employers are oblivious to the problems their employees are dealing with whilst at work.

Some may argue it is not an employer’s responsibility to care for their employees in this sense, but I would have to disagree. Both morally and productively, it is in the employer’s best interest that their workforce are happy whilst at work. Not only do happy people tend to stay in their role longer, therefore lowering staff turnover; they have lower rates of absenteeism and they also tend to be more productive whilst at work. A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, whilst unhappy workers proved 10% less productive. They stated ‘we found that human happiness has large and positive casual effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings’.

From a professional point of view, it is very important that employers pay attention to what can cause or add to loneliness in the work place as attrition can be very damaging to a company. When employees leave, the ripple effect can be felt throughout the company. Lost knowledge, training costs, interviewing costs and recruitment costs all add up and companies can therefore not afford to ignore the long-term implications of high employee turnover. More research is being carried out in this subject area which is a step in the right direction, however there is much still to do.

When beginning to consider what may be contributing to potential loneliness, one of the things an employer should consider is an employee’s work space. Many businesses are trialing ‘hot desking’; this involves allocating desks to workers when they are required or on a rota system, rather than giving each worker their own desk. Hot desking can cut the costs of running an office by up to 30%, however research has shown that more than a quarter of companies that have introduced the scheme report a significant drop in staff morale. The study raised concerns about employees struggling to develop and maintain relationships as they no longer have the same colleagues surrounding them, who they can interact with on a day to day basis.

The same issue can be related to flexible working hours. Giving employers the freedom to choose when they work does have its benefits, however staff interaction may be disrupted as staff will be working at different times of the day. Working from home creates a similar issue for obvious reasons; staff miss out on the opportunity to form work relationships if they are not present in the office. They will also miss out on benefiting from group work and communication barriers may form from not having face to face contact. With so many different forms of communication available to us, it is now easier to pick up the phone rather than going to see someone in person. We are more connected than ever, yet we have never been more disconnected from the people around us.

Work life balance is also an increasing issue. The modern-day workplace has replaced working drinks with longer working hours. People are rushing at the end of the day to ensure what little time they have left they spend with their family and employees are regularly skipping social lunches to eat at their desk in order to continue working. External relationships are taking priority over forming internal relationships. A shocking statistic that represents this was shown by a 2014 survey that revealed 42% of individuals believe they don’t have a single friend at work. A very worrying statistic when you consider just how much time is spent there.

So how can employers identify which of their work force may be suffering? It is certainly not the case that it will just be affecting the shy and reserved members of staff. The loud, confident employees may be masking their feelings by displaying a bold persona. There’s one thing for certain, the shy nor the confident employees will be shouting ‘I’m lonely’ for everyone to hear. Therefore, perhaps the answer moving forward is to focus on a predominantly preventive measure rather than a curative approach…

In part 2 of this blog, I will suggest different methods businesses can implement in an attempt to prevent members of their workforce developing feelings of loneliness and what can be done to help those who may be suffering in silence.

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