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How Employers Can Protect Workers from Isolation and Loneliness (And why it’s crucial to their mental health)

By Dr. Bill Howatt, Ph.D., Behavioral Scientist June 28, 2022

Workers who are isolated physically or emotionally from their peers are at high risk of loneliness. Whether an employee is working remotely or on-site, it’s important for CEOs and senior leaders to monitor the degree they feel socially connected with psychologically safe relationships to mitigate the risk of isolation and loneliness.

2022 study by Entrepreneur reported that 72 percent of global workers experience loneliness monthly and 55 percent weekly. The study also revealed that 94 percent of leaders have team members becoming lonelier while working remotely.

Research evidence also links perceived isolation and loneliness to increased workers’ risk of mental illness:

  • Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University found a lack of social connection heightens a worker’s health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder. Holt-Lunstad also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to workers’ physical and mental health as obesity.
  • Medical journal The Lancet recently reported why it’s crucial for employers to pay attention to isolation and loneliness.  It found that even less than 10 days of feeling lonely can have long-term effects, with psychiatric symptoms present up to three years later.
  • Wharton School of Business’ Sigal Barsade and California State University’s Hakan Ozcelik reported that increases in workplace loneliness led to lower work performance. Their research also indicated that higher levels of loneliness are associated with higher risks of depression, anxiety, and death by suicide.

Some signs that an employee is feeling isolated might include:

  • Appearing withdrawn from the team
  • Being inconsistent in responding or reciprocating to reach-outs
  • Avoiding  team functions without sharing why
  • Having no clear best friend or contact at work
  • Presenting increased feelings of self-doubt
  • Personal hygiene or appearance changes
  • Making unexplained changes in work behaviors
  • Inferring feelings of being disconnected

HOW CAN EMPLOYERS MITIGATE THE RISK OF ISOLATION AND LONELINESS?

Based on my own research and clinical experience, employers can play an essential role in supporting workers to build resiliency and reduce their risk of isolation and loneliness. A pre-pandemic Workplace Safety & Prevention Services study found that employees with higher resilience were less likely to experience isolation or loneliness. The recommendations below are designed to help workers build their resiliency, promote their mental fitness, and support their emotional well-being.

The following targeted transformational mental fitness prevention and support programs recommendations consider a two-way accountability model for mitigating employees’ risk of isolation and loneliness. These tactics require what‘s called a  Plan – Do – Check – Act approach. A recent Canadian Standards Association study indicated that employers must focus more on the Check part of the process to determine if what they’re doing is working or is valued by workers and leaders.

  • Provide workers and leaders with psychoeducation on isolation and loneliness to inform and eliminate stigma. Isolation and loneliness were growing health problems not getting the attention they deserved before COVID-19. While loneliness is not a clinical mental illness, it can negatively impact mental health and increase the risk of disability or death by suicide. Like mental illness, stigma can inhibit people from asking for support when experiencing isolation or loneliness. Psychoeducation can leverage models using infographics, blogs, articles, and awareness webinars to educate employees on isolation and loneliness. Subjects include withdrawal from social life, missing meetings, ignoring emails or phone calls, negative impacts on memory and energy, and increased at-risk behaviors like substance use and food addiction. The goal is to provide awareness and context and normalize and promote help-seeking behaviors.
  • Start a conversation when you’re concerned. Leaders have a legal responsibility under human rights legislation for Duty to Inquire to protect workers experiencing a mental illness. Though loneliness is not a mental illness, it can negatively impact performance. Within the workplace context, leaders are expected to manage behaviors, not diagnose. When a leader “reasonably ought to know” something is wrong because they notice sudden changes in behaviors, they have a responsibility to inquire.For example, if a worker who typically was on time for meetings, responded to emails, and produced high-quality work on-time starts to form a pattern that negatively impacts their performance, the leader’s responsibility is to inquire, not assume the worker is failing. You can do this by meeting with the worker to check in, reporting only facts, and not making assumptions. Your conversation may start like, “Hi. Thanks for checking in with me. I wanted to see how you are doing. Over the last two weeks, I noticed you missed the following …. This is not my typical experience with you. Can you help me understand what is going on?” The message should be delivered confidentially, with kindness and support to determine what barriers or challenges the worker may be facing. How the worker responds will determine what you’ll say. A worker experiencing loneliness may share that they’re feeling down and not connected. In this case, you can suggest making a plan to help them feel more connected and recommend some of the tactics outlined below. All leaders can benefit from training on becoming psychologically safe leaders.
  • Provide employees on-demand opportunities to screen for isolation and loneliness. Addictive disorder screening tools can identify risks and advise whether further clinical assessment with a mental health professional is beneficial. The Perceived Isolation Loneliness Effect is a free, confidential screening tool that employees can use to assess their risk of isolation and loneliness. The goal is to provide awareness and promote help-seeking behavior.
  • Set a corporate goal that every employee will have one psychologically safe relationship in the workplace. Employees must feel a sense of belonging and value to feel psychologically safe. This corporate objective can be measured through confidential surveys that ask how many psychologically safe relationships employees have in the workplace (i.e., zero, one, two, three, four, five, or more). Provide a clear definition like “A psychologically safe relationship is where you feel safe to be vulnerable, speak your mind without fear of being judged or ridiculed and trust the person to care about your well-being personally and professionally.” The goal is to focus on protecting rather than assuming all employees have secure, safe relationships.
  • Train leaders to support workers’ social connections. Leaders play a critical role in facilitating workers’ experience, so teach them how to protect workers from isolation and loneliness. The training should speak to the why, what, and how to ensure leaders walk away with usable tools. The goal is to provide leaders with insights and tools to mitigate the psychosocial risk of isolation and the psychosocial hazard of loneliness.
  • Encourage CEOs to put authentic connections on their talking agendas. Building and maintaining authentic social connections requires work. CEOs need to talk repeatedly about the value of investing energy in building social connections and why these matter. CEOs and senior leaders can promote the importance of psychologically safe social connections in their communications. They can share the benefits of informal and formal programs for the workforce to connect socially. Programs can include social activities, recreation, social responsibility initiatives and clubs, cross-department networking, in-person meetings, group activities, and support initiatives. The goal is to anchor the importance of all workers and leaders experiencing a sense of belonging for the organization to thrive to its full potential.
  • Identify cognitive-behavioral approaches that target and prevent the risk of isolation and loneliness. Accept that some workers and leaders may be experiencing isolation and loneliness. In my book The Cure for Loneliness, I explain mental traps (i.e., learned faulty beliefs) that influence a person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions to move away from creating or experiencing social connections. An example is a person experiencing anxiety that generates thinking that is not in their best interest. Interventions to help employees languishing in isolation and loneliness to move towards authentic connections can curb the risk of mental illness. Ideally, these programs are done over eight to 12 weeks and include measurement, education, and support for building authentic personal and professional connections. The goal is to provide employees requiring additional help with a program that focuses on learning and creating habits that develop and maintain authentic connections.
  • Explore mental health apps that support isolation and loneliness. Mental health apps can be a low-cost, scalable gateway to encouraging behavioral change or help-seeking behaviors without fear of stigma. Hugr Authentic Connections, for example, is an app designed to help people feel more connected. and it encourages employers to keep the importance of on-boarding mental health top of mind.
  • Offer employee support programs. Sometimes workers or leaders experiencing isolation or loneliness will benefit from professional assistance. When educating about workplace mental health supports like EFAP or psychological services, it can be beneficial to advise workers that these programs can be helpful for a range of mental health concerns, including isolation and loneliness.
  • Employers can reduce employees’ and leaders’ risk of the worldwide loneliness epidemic by targeting this hazard by leveraging the Plan–Do–Check–Act approach. However, they should never just assume a program or policy is working. They should check and confirm through measurement and program evaluation.
  • Authentic social connections are critical for good mental health within the workplace and while there are no one-and-done fixes for facilitating and supporting employees to develop and maintain psychologically safe social connections, employers can reduce risks by promoting mental fitness that supports social connections and resiliency. Workers who are helped to build resiliency are less likely to experience isolation and loneliness.

Dr. Bill Howatt, founder, and CEO of Howatt HR refers to himself as a behavioral scientist with a keen curiosity for how employees and employers can work together to reduce mental harm and promote mental health in the workplace. He is known internationally and is one of Canada’s top experts in workplace psychological health and safety. Dr. Bill is on the CSA OHS Standards Steering Committee and Chair of the CSA Standard Z1008: Management of Substance-Related Impairment in the Workplace. He is the co-creator of the Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards. 

Dr. Bill regularly contributes to workplace mental health research such as Canada Pandemic Pulse Check: COVID-19’s Impact on Canadians’ Mental Health with the Mental Health Commission of Canada; Moving to Action: Implementing the Workplace Safety & Prevention Services’ Mental Harm Prevention Roadmap, and Canada Standards Association Investigating employers’ practices in response to COVID-19 for safeguarding employees’ psychological health and safety in the workplace. He has 30 years of clinical experience in mental health and addictive disorders.  

Dr. Bill is the former Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, at The Conference Board of Canada, and the former Chief of Research and Development, Workforce Productivity, at Lifeworks. Dr. Bill has created the Senate-approved Certificate in Psychologically Safe Leadership and  Certificate in Management Essentials, Pathway to Coping and Mental Fitness through the University of New Brunswick. He is the co-creator of the Psychological Health and Safety Facilitator Certificate.

Dr. Bill is a regular contributor and co-authors a blog with the CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada for WSPS Ontario CEO Health and Safety Leadership Network. Dr. Bill has published over 50 books, such as The Globe and Mail bestseller, The Cure for Loneliness, and Stop Hiding and Start Living. He is a regular contributor to Talent Canada, OHS Magazine, and The Chronicle Herald and has published over 350 articles with The Globe and Mail.

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