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A light in the dark: Combatting staff loneliness during pandemic

Loneliness can affect even the most unlikely people at times, and COVID-19 has created a perfect breeding ground for it. While we all know how important it is to focus on productivity and hard work during these difficult economic times, we also need to remember that most people need people.
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Whether your workforce is still homeworking, mixing homeworking with on-site work, or all back at the workplace, loneliness may be affecting many of your workers. From the staff member who lives alone and works at home on their own, to on-site workers who miss an active social life, COVID-19 has, to varying degrees, had a social impact on everyone.

The very nature of HR means that as an HR professional, you have a mandate to promote and support social connections within your workforce – you won’t be able to get everyone involved, but you can suggest tools, offer advice, and organise events to help alleviate loneliness in your workers.

 For your homeworkers

If you have staff who have been working from home for months now, most of them are probably missing the friendly interactions that come with working on site. The ‘Hello’ from your teammates as you arrive in the morning, the ‘How have you been?’ in the kitchen as you prepare your first coffee for the day, and the ‘Are you alright?’ if you visibly look stressed or overloaded. For those that live alone, work might be their primary form of social contact; for those that live with family or friends, work can be a welcome distraction and refuge from personal problems.

What happens when this face-to-face interaction has been stripped away for a long period of time? When work is all about work and the perks of workplace friendships are side lined?

Since the beginning of COVID-19, HR and business leaders have placed communicating with staff high on the agenda. Teams have been encouraged to use online tools to keep in touch with each other, and to replicate as much as they can from ‘normal’ on-site work at home, digitally. But it might be time to frame this advice with loneliness specifically at the forefront of the conversation. The morning team call isn’t just about catching up on who is doing what, it’s also about checking in with each other, hearing another voice at the end of the line, seeing a face where video calls are used – feeling part of the team.

It shouldn’t just be up to line managers to maintain colleague connections – HR can play an active role in providing opportunities for people to connect, too.

Does your organisation have a book club? Why not start one that meets online? Has your business done exercise classes in the past that stopped with COVID-19? Can you perhaps make some adjustments to the class so it can be done online, too? What about reverse mentoring? If you’ve been thinking about initiating it in your workforce for years but never gotten around to it, you may find that now is the time to do it. Different generations may be experiencing different struggles with loneliness and working from home, and they might be able to learn coping skills from each other – as well as work skills of course, too!

As an HR team, how well do you know your workforce? If you have HR business partners, they’ll hopefully have strong relationships across the business. Use the connections you have and what you know about your staff to reach out to people to check how they’re going. Try to give people time for a proper chat – you may well be the only person that staff member speaks to that day.

 For your part-time or full-time on-site workers

There could be a temptation to think that those working on-site won’t be suffering from loneliness; but this might not be the case. Your workforce could be nervous about being back on site and avoiding having as much face-to-face contact with people as they’ve had in the past. People might also have returned to much emptier worksites (where coming back on site is being staggered, or staff members have been let go). Even for those whose worksite feels relatively ‘normal’, their level of social interaction outside of work might have gone down.

So how can HR help on-site workers feel less lonely and more connected with their colleagues?

It’s a given that you should be communicating what you’re doing to make your workplace safe, but some workers might still want to steer clear of others. You can’t, and shouldn’t, force social interactions. What you can do is make online social events available to on-site workers, just as you would those working from home.

Think about giving people time during work hours to dial into a weekly trivia quiz for example, or provide line managers with some team ice-breaker exercises that they can do via video call – the sort of interactions that would be encouraged at team ‘away days’.

Don’t forget that ‘social’ interactions also include professional conversations. Where a manager and employee might have had certain conversations behind closed doors in the past, meeting rooms for 2 people might not provide enough space for staff to keep their distance now. Managers and employees aren’t likely to want to shout these conversations across the workplace, so, think about whether you have meeting rooms that you could make available to individuals to conduct private calls with colleagues or managers.

What more can HR do?

Be prepared with information about support services for staff who need further help with managing loneliness – you might already have mental-health support materials or programmes in place for your staff, but tailoring how these resources are communicated, so you’re offering COVID-19 specific help, might make it easier for people to identify with them.

If your organisation can afford to pay for employees to have counselling with a mental-health professional, that would be a great benefit to have on offer. Simply directing staff to external resources like the NHS and Mind is also helpful – sometimes when people aren’t thinking clearly, the obvious ports of call for help might not seem so obvious.

If you don’t already have one, why not put an information sheet together that’s easily accessible for your staff on where they can turn for help with COVID-19-related mental-health concerns? This is also useful for managers who are worried about staff, and who want to be able to direct them to a tangible resource.

Loneliness can affect even the most unlikely people at times, and COVID-19 has created a perfect breeding ground for it. While we all know how important it is to focus on productivity and hard work during these difficult economic times, we also need to remember that most people need people – granted, some human beings are quite content on their own day in day out. But, for most of your workforce, to keep them happy and focused, you need to help them keep loneliness at bay.

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