Mental Health Awareness Week: Supporting Lonely Employees

Mental Health Awareness Week: Supporting Lonely Employees

The latest ONS figures show that 3.7 million adults “often or always” feel lonely in Great Britain – rising from 2.6 million in 2020. As clinical experts in mental health, Onebright looks at how employers can prepare themselves with training to understand the protocols better if they see an employee’s mental health deteriorating. 

Employees don’t tend to share their feelings of loneliness in the workplace, and they may not even recognise that they’re lonely because it can be challenging to accept this emotion for what it is. In some people, loneliness can present itself as a lack of motivation or a drop in productivity. Far too often, loneliness is shrouded in shame when, in fact, it’s universal and a way of our bodies telling us that we need one another for our well-being. 

Feelings of loneliness are often dismissed, so symptoms can show up in the form of being unmotivated or unproductive. However, physical evidence shows that the brain processes loneliness as physical. Brain scans have shown that experiences like being shunned by a community, being excluded, and feeling isolated activates the same areas in the brain that respond to physical pain. 

This sends the brain into a hyper-alert state to prepare for danger but can lead to errors in social thinking that cause us to misinterpret the information we take in. In other words, when we feel lonely, it can lead us to misread the intentions of others as unethical, competitive, or threatening.

Being lonely has also been linked to worse physical and emotional health outcomes and poorer well-being. A lack of social support can directly affect our potential for experiencing happiness because it seems we’re wired to seek out social companionship and understanding.

The need for connection and belonging is similar to the urge that drives us to eat and drink. In 2020, researchers proved that after 10 hours of social isolation, human participants reported substantially increased social craving, loneliness, discomfort, and dislike of isolation. They also demonstrated decreased happiness compared with when they started isolation.

What is loneliness, and how is it different from being alone?

Loneliness is a unique and complex emotion. We can be alone and not feel lonely. 

While being alone is voluntary and balanced, loneliness is a state of mind that causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who feel lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Feeling lonely can harm your mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time. Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.

With more teams working remotely or hybrid, the topic of lonely employees is more pertinent than ever. Employers and business leaders can positively impact employee well-being by helping to make it easier to be noticed and find friends at work. 

Here are three different ways employees can support employees who are feeling lonely:  

1. Realise there are people in your organisation who are feeling lonely. 

Loneliness won’t always manifest itself in easily noticeable ways amid the demands of client calls, meetings, and heavy workloads. It can be good practice to understand whether loneliness is a problem by observing whether employees socialise with others or if they have close friends at work. It is essential to be mindful that not everyone socialises in the same ways, and not everyone may want to make friends at work. As an employer, you can make an impact by providing an environment where building friendships is possible.

2. Make space for friendships to grow.

If employees are overwhelmed with responsibilities from the start of the workday until the end, they won’t be able to make meaningful connections at work. As an employer, you can look at the pace that employers are working and, if it is fast-paced and high-stress, consider how processes can be optimised to give employees some breathing space. Getting a cup of coffee or having a meaningful conversation with a coworker helps foster friendships that will reduce turnover and increase engagement.

3. Offer mental health benefits. 

Employers can offer mental health resources to help employees improve their mental well-being. Onebright’s mental health training and therapies give employees access to clinically-led, confidential assistance for a range of mental health conditions, substance abuse, relationship troubles, and other issues related to loneliness. These services can be delivered through our online portal, in-person training, or a private session with one of our accredited clinicians. 

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