2021 Workplace Mental Health Trends:
Social Connections, Loneliness and Pandemic
40% of Canadians are struggling with mental health, addiction amid coronavirus pandemic and restrictions have left 54% of Canadians feeling isolated. Ipsos
We were already forming fewer friendships than in the past. Previously, as life got busier, our social network got smaller and smaller. Then, COVID hit. And Loneliness Is Pervasive. Click to tweet
Physical distancing, working remotely, and lockdowns have impacted our relationships and our mental health, and it’s expected that the ripple out impact of this will be felt for years to come.
People Are Not Seeing The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
While the switch to a virtual office with meetings on Zoom, Skype or other online platforms has allowed for greater flexibility, efficiency, convenience, as well as safety, experts say the lack of social interaction has taken a mental health toll on workers.
As we head into another lockdown, here in Ontario to flatten the third wave, many are feeling very fatigued and emotionally drained. The pandemic has also made people more cynical compared to the early days of the crisis. And the rollout of vaccines has done little to uplift the mood, the Ipsos poll suggested. In fact, 43% of Canadians are feeling pessimistic about a return to ‘normal’ life once the spread of COVID-19 is contained.
What Is Loneliness?
Loneliness is an emotion that brings about “social pain.” It’s the feeling you get when distressed or anxious due to a perceived lack of connection with others when you need it or want it.
Relationships need to exist, fulfill an appropriate role, and be mostly positive, to keep loneliness at bay.
Everyone feels lonely sometimes. When loneliness happens often or becomes chronic such as times of lockdown, it can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
Loneliness and Working Remotely
A pre-pandemic survey by Cigna found that more than 60% of employees were lonely at work. Nearly 80% of Gen Z employees said they experienced loneliness in the workplace, compared to 71% of millennials and 50% of baby boomers.
In previous decades, work was a major source of friendships and connections. There were company sponsored picnics, sports teams and holiday dances, as well as impromptu ‘water cooler’ conversations. Now, many are working from home or in isolation from colleagues. Conversations focus on problem solving, and meeting the challenges of the business disruption. Fewer meaningful relationships are being built.
According to a Cigna study recently released, over three of every five Americans are lonely (as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale)—the highest level in recorded history. Our average number of close friends whom we can talk with about important issues (such as the coronavirus) has shrunk from three to two, with over 25 percent of respondents reporting they have no close friends whatsoever with whom to discuss what matters to them.
And we know that loneliness at work can increase absenteeism and presenteeism (lack of engagement) and impair productivity, performance, creativity, reasoning, and decision-making even further.
15 Helpful Tips For People Working From Home To Combat Loneliness:
- Make a point of speaking with at least one person on your team each day
- Take time to connect with co-workers on a personal level, the same way you would if you were at the office — those extra moments go a long way.
- Try to enable your computer/phone camera while in online meetings, so you can see familiar faces.
- Structure your day.
- Take frequent breaks. Quiet activities can calm the body and the mind.
- Be flexible with your schedule.
- Exercise improves physical, emotional, and mental health, including decreasing loneliness and improving mood.
- Set reasonable goals for each day.
- Build in space between meetings to beat “zoom fatigue”.
- Portion control of food, alcohol and social media consumption.
- Become socially creative. Find new ways to work and connect with others.
- Set aside time to meet family, friends, and coworkers. Think bite-sized conversations.
- To feel more connected to others, think of who in your own networks might be lonely too. Pick up the phone. Send a text
- Cultivate gratitude. Being grateful for the connections and relationships in our lives makes new connections more likely to happen.
- Keep perspective. It is only natural to feel an increase in loneliness. Be kind to yourself and know that there is nothing wrong with you. Working from home in a pandemic is not working from home. It’s weird, isolating, claustrophobic, and deeply challenging.
What Leaders Can Do To Combat Loneiness?
Leaders play an important role in preventing loneliness among their team. One of the 10 Important Elements Of Organizational Culture is social support, however it is often one of the most neglected areas of workplace culture. It is seen as an ‘extra’, a social nicety, or something to focus on if you have time.” Now is the time.
Research shows that it is important for leaders to increase the right type of communication needed for building social bonds. Employees who work in virtual environments feel a stronger sense of liking and connectedness to their team members when there is a high degree of informal communication between them.
12 Ways for Leaders To Combat Loneliness:
- Encourage regular check-ins and ensure that everyone is connecting as a team.
- Use online tools to keep in touch with each other.
- Develop strategies for those in emptier worksites as well as those working remotely.
- Host regular team meetings, and don’t make them all about work.
- Add some time for fun and socialization. Look at ice breakers or trivia sessions.
- Eat lunch together. Exercise together.
- Create walking meetings.
- Be vulnerable. Share some of the challenges that you have faced.
- Reach out and provide emotional support when needed.
- Know how to start a supportive mental health conversation.
- Make yourself available for when employees need someone to lend a friendly ear.
- Promote the use of corporate and community resources, such as your HR department, EAP, or telehealth services for those who may be struggling. Since May last year, the government of Ontario has offered free internet-based mental health therapy programs to help Ontarians, including front-line health care workers, experiencing anxiety and depression.
Loneliness is an important issue that has taken on increased urgency in the face of a pandemic. Loneliness will have profound consequences for how individuals weather the COVID-19 pandemic. As individuals and business leaders find their way forward, it is important to not overlook the strategies that can minimize the impact of loneliness on the mental health of those around them.
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