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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 9: Working Remotely and Feeling Lonely

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
March 31, 2021


The Scenario

A large IT company changed its work model to a remote workforce since the onset of COVID-19. It gave up its office space and has all employees working remotely. After one year of experience with this model, HR leaders are noticing through their survey data a significant percentage of the workforce is not feeling socially connected. Those employees’ engagement and satisfaction scores are declining.

The HR team is becoming concerned that employees who feel more socially isolated, disconnected, and perceive a lack of access to the workplace will be more at risk of experiencing loneliness. They are starting to educate their senior leadership that isolation and loneliness are not the same. Isolation (e.g., working remotely) makes it challenging for a person to have access to other employees; loneliness is emotional.

The HR team is wondering what they can do to support employees who are struggling with working remotely because over 40% are reporting some degree of concern. The team is concerned and worried about retention, productivity, and the risk of increased mental health claims.

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

In the study Being Alone Together: The Social Pandemic of Loneliness During COVID-19, Dr. Nasreen Khatri stated that modern workplaces, blurred lines between our home, personal lives, work lives, and that working remotely contributes to loneliness for employees. Loneliness comes in many disguises, even when you are with your family at home during COVID. Employees can also be on their own and not feel lonely.

One size does not fit all when dealing with this important issue. Organizations and leaders are working hard in creative and innovative ways to extend their employees’ connections with colleagues at work, which is extremely important and beneficial. However, attendance should always be an option and not an expectation. For some employees, attending corporate social club events may be just one more meeting to add to their list that is possibly keeping them from spending time with family and friends which helps them feel connected. Leaders need to determine intention and expectation when creating programs for employees to connect during this time. Establish which events are mandatory and which ones are optional and note those who are interacting and those who are not engaged. The next step would be to ask employees about their feedback and note their answers.

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

One research study reported that up to 60% of employees who work remotely regularly report feeling lonely. Some perceive their achievements and development needs are not being fulfilled. Another study noted that 46% of employees who work together in the same space report this workplace relationship influences their happiness. Loneliness has been linked as a driver of chronic disease and premature death. It doubles the mortality risk in women and nearly doubles it in men.

Any employer can accept that factors like burnout and loneliness are risks in a workplace. These conditions have nothing to do with employees being mentally weak. Like any mental health concern, employees who experience feelings of isolation or loneliness can also experience stigma. This can prevent some from sharing with their manager that they are struggling with feeling isolated and lonely. Employers can reduce these risks by talking about them, ensuring that their mental health strategy/plan has provisions to collect relevant data, and that training programs instruct employees and leaders on how they can proactively reduce risks.

The Takeaways

  • Social connection plan — Do not assume employees are socially connecting when not in regularly scheduled meetings. Have leaders work with their teams to create social connections plans to stay plugged in and feel connected. Not all employees will need the same plan, so each can meet with their manager to tailor a plan to their needs.
  • Leverage technology with expectations — Instead of leaving things to chance whether cameras will be on or sound on mute, create clarity and expectations around how technology will be used to maximize opportunities for quality social interactions in team meetings.
  • Bring employees to a common space on a set schedule — If possible and within budget, bring all employees together monthly or quarterly to allow for social connections and relationship building.
  • Social connections buddy system — Establish a buddy system with a defined purpose to ensure every employee has at least one social connection whose role is to regularly check in on their buddy to see how they are doing.
  • Train managers — Educate leaders on isolation and loneliness, as well as what they can do to refine their listening skills. One of the most important skills is listening to ensure team members feel heard. In these conversations, leaders can get a clear grasp on how their employees are doing and when they need to intervene to reduce the risk of any feeling isolated or lonely.
  • One size does not fit all — Building on our last point of educating and training leaders, it is important to understand that if employees are feeling isolated, is it because they are not connected at work or because work has become so consuming that they are feeling isolated from family and friends.


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