There is no shortage of commentary on the cost of living, but what about the cost of living lonely? Official figures show that 1 in 4 of us feel lonely ‘always’, ‘often’ or ‘some of the time’, with potentially significant impacts on our health and wellbeing, including a 26% increase in the risk of mortality. For UK employers, loneliness carries an estimated cost of £2.5 billion a year, primarily as a result of increased staff turnover and lower wellbeing and productivity.

Yet we are barely scratching the surface when it comes to having regular, meaningful conversations about loneliness. While some employers and workers have become more open about their mental health struggles - it is arguably one small silver lining of the pandemic – there’s still a great sense of shame attached to the subject of loneliness. The government recognised this in its 2018 strategy and set out an overarching objective to “reduce stigma by building the national conversation.”

Acas’s framework for positive mental health is a good place to start. Developed in collaboration with customers and other key stakeholders, it sets out the shared responsibility and goal that employers, managers and individuals have in promoting wellbeing at work. So, what is each of these actors’ role in tackling the loneliness epidemic?

Employers: loneliness is your business

Confronting this public health issue requires a collective response, including from businesses. Government guidance states: “Supporting people to have meaningful social relationships is not just crucial to people’s physical and mental health. It also affects their engagement in the workplace and wider community cohesion”. Any responsible business should have loneliness on their agenda.

For most, work is more than simply a job. It can offer us a route to friendships and provide a sense of purpose and belonging. Certainly, many of us have never felt so connected to our colleagues than we have during the pandemic, even if it has been via Zoom. For others, the impact of COVID might have intensified their emotional detachment from work, leading them to look elsewhere.

Crucially, the pandemic has reminded us that our personal lives don’t simply stop when we log on or arrive at our workplaces. Feelings of loneliness can spill into our working lives, or they may be caused or fuelled by work. It is within senior leaders’ control, and indeed interest, to:

  • adopt a strategic approach to positive wellbeing so it becomes part and parcel of an organisation’s values. This includes raising awareness of loneliness to challenge stigma and more broadly, recognising how mental health and wellbeing intersects with all aspects of working life
  • meaningfully consult with trade unions and other representatives, including staff networks and wellbeing champions to understand the impacts of new ways of working on feelings of loneliness and how to overcome any barriers
  • engage with all line managers to understand what support and training might be required to empower them to confidently help staff experiencing loneliness, as well as themselves

Written by Simone Cheng, Senior Policy Adviser, Acas

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