Managers responding to loneliness in the workplace

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18 May 2020
Dr Anna Topakas, Lecturer in Work Psychology, Institute of Work Psychology (IWP), Centre for Loneliness Studies

Working from home, or not being able to work at all, has inevitably reduced the opportunity for satisfying interactions and exchanges in the daily lives of the employed. The nature, content, quantity and quality of communication has been affected and this may have left employees feeling isolated and lonely. So what can managers and organisational leaders do to boost community, relationships and support in their battle against loneliness in the workplace? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Talk about the lonely elephant in the room. Acknowledging and talking about loneliness is even harder in the formal and sometimes sterile work setting. Break the silence and lead from the front by acknowledging loneliness as part of being human and encouraging dialogue and action. Soon enough your team will start seeking and offering support to each other and start building meaningful relationships that go beyond formalised and mundane work coordination.   
     
  2. Invest in your relationships. An employee’s relationship with their manager is often more important, meaningful and impactful than their relationships with peers and clients, not least because the manager is typically a source of support, encouragement, information and resources, and they help employees make sense of and find meaning in their work and careers. Building and maintaining strong relationships with each individual you are managing is even more important during times of crisis, but invariably harder when face-to-face interactions are not possible. Use technology to reach out to each of the people you manage and make sure you nourish your relationship so that you can tell if loneliness sets in and they can talk openly without the burden of initiating or establishing the exchange. Knowing your employees’ ‘normal’ means you will be able to recognise when something is not right. 
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  3. Create opportunities for collaboration and communication to take root. Informal e-meets, group chatrooms, sharing jokes on email and such can all help create community and a platform for people to engage. Formal exchanges can also add value by providing everyone with an opportunity to contribute to conversations. Add wellbeing and relationships to the agenda so that they don’t become neglected. This will lead to strengthening of interpersonal relationships within the team or collective, reducing the chance of individuals feeling isolated and lonely. 
     
  4. Don’t be a barrier. In your effort to be efficient and effective in reorganising and coordinating work you may inadvertently put barriers to interpersonal communication and relationships or create subgroups or marginalise individuals. For example, you may exclude individuals from certain meetings or communications to reduce the burden on their time, leaving them feeling excluded and alone. Be mindful when planning work and communications, and accept that inclusion may sometimes be inefficient in the short run but will build a stronger and more resilient team in the long term.  
     
  5. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Leading during a crisis can be exhausting, challenging and outright harmful to the mental health of even the most experienced and resilient leaders. You will be better able to help and support others if you come from a position of strength, with your own bag full of supportive relationships, coping strategies, resources for recovery and renewal. Look after yourself and remember that those you are supporting are more often than not able and keen to support you too. 

Embracing virtual work, communication and coordination comes with a host of benefits. It is an opportunity to integrate individuals and teams that would normally be geographically dispersed or lacking opportunities to coordinate due to the nature and mode of their usual working practices. It can create a more inclusive and level playing field, where everyone has access to the same information and resources, reducing the inequalities that sometimes creep in as a result of auspicious access to people, information, relationship building opportunities, influence opportunities and so on. Feeling part of a team, community or organisation during a time of uncertainty and crisis may also result in long term benefits of stronger relationships, shared identities, interpersonal networks, extended use of wellbeing resources and a better coordinated and productive workforce. Where the manager has provided support and resources for teams and individuals, they will be able to reap the benefits of this investment by having a more committed, responsive and dedicated team who will be more willing to go above and beyond when it comes to achieving individual and collective objectives. Chiefly, responding to the pandemic by creating opportunities for relationships and community building will make organisations more resilient to loneliness not only during the current crisis, but in the long run.

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