The way we are working is changing and for many of us the standard nine till five, office-based existence five days a week is no more. With this evolution comes challenges, one of which is a feeling of being disconnected from colleagues. This could explain why a survey of 5,000 people by relationship charity Relate found that 40% do not have a close friend at work.

This loneliness is an issue for many employees. This is especially true of Millennials (those born between the 1980s and early 2000s), who particularly prize friendship at work. A LinkedIn study of 11,500 fulltime professionals found that 50% of this age group said that having workplace friendships helps them feel ‘more motivated’ and 39% claimed it makes them more productive. Furthermore, one in three millennials believe that socialising with work colleagues will ‘help advance their career’.

Why employers should care
Aside from thinking about the personal good of staff, there are three main areas which should give employers cause for concern:

  1. Withdrawn staff or those with a low morale level won’t give their best to the job and are less likely to work well as a team with others. Relationships tend to make us feel connected, which in turn contributes to increased motivation and productivity levels.
  2. Companies operate as teams and poor morale in one can have an impact on all of those around them. The reverse is also true and it is much easier to share feedback with the team and collaborate more effectively when each member of the team is invested in the relationship.
  3. Productivity – A 2011 study by professors from California State University and the Wharton School of Business of 650 workers found that loneliness hampered employees’ productivity on team-oriented and individual tasks alike.

Five tips to combat workplace loneliness
So what can employers do about it? Some of these ideas may help:

  1. Encourage everyday acts that boost morale. The Harvard Business Review, published a study entitled The Progress Principle, which looked at 12,000 daily diary entries from over 200 professionals. It found that so-called ‘nourishers’ – everyday acts of interpersonal support that increase morale, had a major impact on motivation and engagement. These ‘nourishers’ included receiving encouragement, respect and recognition, emotional comfort, and being providing with opportunities to belong.
  2. Hugging can help — workplace hugs aren’t for everyone but psychologists believe everyone needs at least one hug every day to help them cope with the stresses and strains of 21st century living. A study for Manchester Metropolitan University found that more than 75 per cent of the people they talked to said they would appreciate being hugged more frequently. Dr. David Holmes, the psychologist who led the study, noted that hugging lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and generally combats stress.
  3. Demonstrate visible leadership – the American Psychological Association found that workplace loneliness could be tackled effectively by management leading from the front. They should make themselves visible and accessible, such as by devoting time to walking through the office and speaking to the team. This helps to ensure that employees feel they can come to them if they have problems or are feeling isolated. It also urged leaders to spend more time to listening to employees, through both conversations in wider social gatherings and on a one-to-one basis.
  4. Encourage feedback – use a variety of ways, such as meetings, individual briefings, feedback forms and surveys. Include relevant questions to tease out any feelings of loneliness or isolation – often it is easier for employees to reveal problems such as this in anonymous engagement surveys.
  5. Foster an open culture – giving employees the opportunities to connect and bond with each other is key. Practical steps can include introducing buddying schemes for new recruits to ensure they are well integrated right from the point they come into the organisation. Supporting formal and informal social events are also ways to help bring staff closer together and engender feelings of solidarity. Encouraging feedback can help here again also. So too can the actual physical work environment, Google, for instance prides itself on having offices and cafes “designed to encourage interactions between Googlers within and across teams and to spark conversation about work as well as play”.

The stresses and strains of modern working practices can have an impact on anyone and can mean that workplace loneliness can take root unnoticed. This is not only a problem for the individual but can become an even bigger issue for the organisation. The positive flipside of loneliness is that if companies help to combat it they will create a social organisation that will attract and develop engaged and loyal employees.