Following two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing, never has the bite of loneliness felt more acute.

With many businesses continuing to operate a work-from-home or hybrid policy – with staff in the office perhaps twice a week, if at all – many people may be isolated from social contact and also the support network which can identify that they need help.

As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, employers have been urged to address the mental health impacts of loneliness resulting from the pandemic.

Dr Oliver Harrison, CEO and founder of digital mental healthcare provider Koa Health, believes that loneliness is crippling workplace productivity and that employers must address the mental health impacts of loneliness – a must-have in terms of both employee expectations and business performance.

“The pandemic – quarantine, social distancing and working remotely – left many people feeling disconnected, lonely and isolated, impacting the mental health of individuals and the wellbeing of businesses,” he says. 

“At a time of high demand for mental health treatment, there’s a risk that failing to prioritise mental health within businesses will lead to burnout, absenteeism and turnover across teams. Of course, this further exacerbates the pressures on those left behind, creating a negative spiral that profoundly affects business performance.”

According to a recent Deloitte report, poor mental health costs employers up to £56 billion in 2020-21 compared to £45bn in 2019. 

“As businesses return to the new normal, the impact of the COVID on mental health is just coming into full view,” continues Harrison.

“Offering solutions that address mental health for employees, which are supported, encouraged, and role modelled by leadership, is not only the right thing to do but makes sound business sense.”

Koa Health

Rachel Scott (pictured above alongside Harrison), VP of talent acquisition, people & culture at Koa Health, explains how HR can continue to tackle loneliness at work.

“While hybrid working is considered the ‘new normal’, the balance of home versus office working is still likely to be a source of loneliness for many,” she says. “Some may find remote working suits them well, offering greater autonomy over their working environment and schedule, making it easier to manage their mental health. 

“But others who don’t have the option to be in the office can feel isolated and may worry that they are missing out on important meeting conversations or in-person interactions with co-workers. 

Protect your team’s mental health

“Tackling loneliness is complex; however, there are a range of ways HR leaders can optimise company culture to address loneliness in the workplace. Firstly, dedicated time must be given to workers to socialise. In the era of remote or hybrid working, face-to-face contact and ‘water cooler moments’ have fallen by the way-side, which are crucial to building and nurturing networks and personal relationships. Ensure that the team is encouraged to take regular breaks and create groups on collaboration and instant messaging platforms where people can discuss shared interests. 

“Secondly, support often starts with a conversation. HR leaders must continue to encourage open dialogue about loneliness and its impacts on mental health. The benefits associated with these conversations allow us to better cope with challenges and boost resilience. This will help to reduce the loneliness that many employees might be feeling. 

“A workforce with stronger mental wellbeing is more likely to have stronger morale, greater productivity, and reduced sick leave and staff churn.”