As businesses return to something resembling normality following the Covid-19 pandemic, many are treating staff welfare as a top priority.
It’s easy to see why. The unprecedented disruption has given employees a chance to re-evaluate their working lives, with a growing number saying work-life balance is more important to them than salary. At a time when employers are struggling to retain staff, it makes good business sense to keep workers happy, healthy and motivated.
One particularly tricky path for HR managers to navigate has been the return to the office for staff now used to working remotely. While employers might assume that a shared workspace would boost a sense of community among colleagues, new research from the British Red Cross suggests the truth is more complex.
In a poll of more than 2,000 working adults in the UK, nearly one half of respondents said they sometimes felt lonely at work, while around one in 10 said they often or always felt lonely. But, perhaps surprisingly, people working from home were no more likely to report feeling lonely than those working on-site.
In fact, 43% of respondents said they felt closer to their colleagues while working from home, with only 26% saying remote working had made them feel less connected.
“That might seem counterintuitive,” says Olivia Field, British Red Cross Head of Policy.
“Our polling didn’t look into why some people might feel a stronger connection to colleagues when working remotely, but we also found that working from home could have a positive impact on people’s relationships outside of work.
“Half of respondents told us that remote and hybrid working had improved their connections to family and friends. For many people, that’s likely to be a big factor in work-life balance.”
The charity has campaigned on the issue of loneliness since before the pandemic, highlighting its serious effects on physical and mental health. Studies have linked feeling lonely to an increased risk of heart disease, dementia and having a weakened immune system. One found that loneliness can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
And while loneliness has long been a hidden health crisis in the UK, it also takes a toll on British businesses. Research by the Co-Op and the New Economics Foundation found loneliness costs employers around £2.5bn per year through sick leave, reduced productivity and higher staff turnover.
The new British Red Cross research has also revealed that managers can be particularly susceptible to loneliness, with senior management more than twice as likely to report that they often feel lonely. Managers are also significantly more likely to feel that their colleagues are strangers, and disabled employees also face an increased risk of loneliness.
“People can have preconceptions about loneliness mainly affecting older people, perhaps people who are no longer working, or who have trouble leaving their homes” says Olivia. “But this is a much more widespread issue than people sometimes realise, and employers can definitely play a part in confronting it.”
The charity attempts to do this in its own operations, offering flexible working arrangements for employees wherever possible.
“It’s important for any modern, dynamic organisation to be flexible,” says Laura Roxburgh, British Red Cross Senior Director of People. “That’s why we require all of our managers to consider flexible working requests with an open mind. Not every role can support the same degree of flexibility, but we believe that by trusting our staff and giving them control over their working patterns, we can motivate them to do their jobs to the highest possible standard.
“Flexible working is also a big part of embracing diversity and inclusivity. People from all sorts of backgrounds can have a wide range of family and community commitments. Flexible working is one way of acknowledging that and building the kind of inclusive workplace culture we aspire to have.
“We recognise that we still have work to do on this, and we’re constantly evaluating our progress. We’re also trialling a four-day working week for some of our staff. The Loneliness at Work report will be really useful in informing how we approach these issues.”
Ultimately, no two jobs or organisations are the same, but loneliness affects workers in all sectors. While some employers may be keen to encourage team members back to the office, the British Red Cross says it’s important to listen to employees and understand the kinds of arrangements that best fit their needs.
“There’s definitely a balance to be struck between the advantages of being in the office and the benefits that remote working can have,” Laura says.
“The good news is that those two factors aren’t always in competition with one another. By ensuring that people feel supported in their role, businesses can get the best work from their staff and encourage good workers to stay around for longer.”