If your employees are lonely, is it your business? Traditionally we’ve been reluctant to get tangled up in colleagues’ emotional lives in case it seems intrusive or leads to embarrassment.
However, research shows that loneliness is not just a personal issue; it’s a health and business problem, too. Workplace design is an important factor in creating this isolation.
How loneliness impacts health
Employee wellbeing programmes usually focus on physical health factors such as smoking, inactivity and healthy eating. According to figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness, feeling lonely is as much a threat to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Here’s how loneliness impacts the body: prolonged feelings of loneliness increase production of the stress hormone cortisol. This makes the person breathe less deeply, the heart rate increases and muscles tense up.
Over long periods of time, this has profound health consequences. Loneliness has been found to increase the risk of heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32% and causes a significant increase in dementia risk. Overall, loneliness can reduce life expectancy by up to seven years.
How workplaces make us lonely
Workplace design has a strong influence on how we form relationships in the office, with fenced-off desks, back-to-back seating arrangements and reduced opportunities for personal interaction all feeding into the phenomenon.
While you might think reducing all that chit-chat is a positive for productivity, research shows that banter is the social glue that binds a workplace together and incentivises better performance. A 2014 study by Cornell University found that social connection at work is vital to ensure ‘discretionary effort’ – the urge for employees to give more than the bare minimum.
When workers feel like they are part of a team working towards a common goal, motivation increases and productivity goes up. Closer relationships between colleagues also increases opportunities for sharing skills and knowledge. Yet a 2014 Relate study found that 42% of people do not have a close friend at work.
How to embed sociability in your workplace design
Don’t wait for employees to tell you that loneliness is a problem; you can take simple steps to prevent loneliness in your workplace:
1. Get the balance right
We all need some peace and quiet to get work done, but think carefully before creating an environment with so many barriers and cubicles that employees cannot speak to each other. Sitting in islands rather than back-to-back, for example, can help encourage a little conversation.
2. Create social spaces
Too many workplaces lack a place where friendships can blossom – whether a break-out room, canteen or games room. These rooms can bring people together, but they need to be designed carefully so they do not intimidate people entering alone.
3. Use signage to celebrate relationships
Ice breakers such as charity challenges or interdepartmental competitions can be a great way to build team spirit and get people talking to one another. Keep it fun, inclusive and low-key and be sure to post pictures and updates on your communication channels.
4. Make room for private discussions
Loneliness is something most employees are reluctant to discuss, which makes careful listening on the part of managers all the more important. Having quiet, relaxed spaces for catch ups can provide the conditions in which an isolation problem can be identified. Without these, low morale and dwindling productivity caused by loneliness could easily be mistaken for lack of commitment.