With loneliness becoming a pertinent problem for the UK population as a whole, employers need to consider ways of keeping employees connected over the coming months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a myriad of changes, one of the most prevalent being the sudden shift to remote working.
Whilst many employees have been working from home for the past year, mental health and wellbeing have become a key concern for HR when it comes to staff.
New data from the Office for National Statistics shows that loneliness is a concern for the UK at large, with HR needing to tackle this issue head on as working from home permanently becomes a reality for some workers.
The levels of loneliness in the UK have risen substantially from last year. When initially polled in April-May of 2020, only 5 per cent of the UK population stated that they felt lonely “often” or “always”.
However, this has since risen to 7.2 per cent of the adult population between October 2020 and February 2021. This equates to roughly 3.7 million adults.
In addition to this, it was young people and areas which had a lower average age which reported higher rates of loneliness during the pandemic.
This statistic is in line with other findings which previously reported that three-quarters of young people felt that their career opportunities were being harmed as a result of not being able to network face-to-face. Crucially, this indicates this group is particularly prone to feeling lonely and missing in-person interaction which could provide HR teams with a key demographic to focus on.
On the flipside, the ONS also found that areas with high rates of unemployment were more likely to have a higher proportion of people feeling lonely “often” or “always”. This promisingly suggests that employment can be utilised as an effective tool for communicating and challenging feelings of loneliness if staff are kept well-connected.
Loneliness is also a concern for HR staff as it is leading to increased rates of anxiety in the UK, a condition which poses the risk of developing into an anxiety disorder.
Helen Llewellyn, Director of Infinity Wellbeing, a wellbeing consultancy, stressed the need to ease back into working life slowly:
If 7.2 per cent of the population had a physical disease, action would be taken urgently.
While you expect older people or those with pre-existing conditions who have been cut off from their social networks since the pandemic began to be lonely, extroverts of working age may also be feeling lonely, as they thrive on being around other people.
As social groups restart, hospitality opens and work goes back to the office, care will need to be taken to prevent overwhelm. Moving quickly to multiple interactions per day could well cause, or exacerbate, anxiety or mental health issues.
Commenting on mental health as a whole, Simon Blake, CEO of MHFA England, said:
COVID-19 has increased the need for employers to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.
Workplaces are key to creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters so some employers must play catch up. We urge more employers to bring together diversity and inclusion with mental health and wellbeing, to create workplaces that are fit for all.
Regular wellbeing check-ins with colleagues are a vital way to support people’s mental health during the pandemic and a good starting point. We’re urging all employers to adopt this simple practice today.
*The full ONS study on loneliness can be found here.
Monica Sharma is an English Literature graduate from the University of Warwick. As Editor for HRreview, her particular interests in HR include issues concerning diversity, employment law and wellbeing in the workplace. Alongside this, she has written for student publications in both England and Canada. Monica has also presented her academic work concerning the relationship between legal systems, sexual harassment and racism at a university conference at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.