14 July 2017

Back in February, CEOs and senior HR professionals from a range of industries gathered to start a conversation on how employers can play a role in reducing loneliness among employees and stakeholders.  This week they met up again to find out more about what ideas are being trialled. 'Business' was the first in a series of initiatives for the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, as an often overlooked player in the response to dealing with loneliess. Here are some of the ideas discussed...

A collage of images showing people enjoying workplace situations.

While loneliness might seem like an issue best left to communities, health organisations and charities, the impacts recently highlighted in research led by Commission partners The Co-op prove otherwise. The results show that lonely people are more likely to leave a job sooner, be less productive at work, and suffer from ill health — therefore taking more sick leave. These are just some of the impacts from loneliness that contribute to the £2.3 billion spent by UK employers each year in working through these issues. That’s £82 per employee. Every year.

Earlier in the year, representatives from the finance, retail and communications industries, trade associations, and charities came together — with the likes of Marks & Spencer, Google, BT, Nationwide, Federation of Small Businesses, Business in the Community and Power to Change — to share ideas. After discussing the research, they put their heads together to think about actions they could take within their own organisations, all pledging to (at the very least) start a conversation internally to see what steps could be taken. These are some of the ideas from the session:

Open up retirement planning

Jaguar Land Rover invite retirees to bring friends and family along to their retirement planning sessions, where together they learn skills around self-employment and volunteering, financial planning, housing matters, lifelong learning, relationships, wellbeing and health and fitness. Together, retirees and their support people make a plan for their transition to ensure the experience doesn’t come as an unpleasant shock.

Mobile-free meetings

The time spent gathering before a meeting used to be spent chatting, analysing last night’s TV show or complaining about the weather. All crucial fodder for bonding, building and maintaining relationships. But mobiles are robbing us from these once-standard social situations. Nowadays, people will spend that pre-meeting time scrolling through emails or catching up on an online group chat until the chair of the meeting kicks things off. Creating a mobile-free meeting mandate is a small but far-reaching step that businesses can take to help colleagues get to know each other.

Include childcare in your benefits package

Flexible working is appreciated by many: the ability to work from home can be crucial for some, especially for those with children. However, for employees who work from home frequently to care for children, a variety of adult interactions is often missed. By offering childcare discounts or opportunities, parents can spend more time in the office and build more relationships with colleagues.

Run events on weekends too

Many organisations host after-work drinks or team days out, but for the severely lonely, weekends can be the worst. Think about events—optional of course—that employees looking for social bonding with their peers can take part in during the weekend. These can be opened up to include workers’ families too.

Get to know your direct reports

Whether you manage two people or 22, make an effort to get to know your employees: what they do for fun, who they live with and what they’re going through. Be genuine. The simple act of ‘caring’ is stronger than you might think, and is linked to an employee’s job satisfaction, productivity and work/life balance. It will enrich your personal relationship but also your working relationship too. Make an effort to talk with your employees more before getting down to business.

Bring yourself to work

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation encourages employees to ‘bring themselves to work’. This means being who they are and not hiding behind a wall of stiff professionalism. Promoting individuality fosters a culture of openness, sharing and creativity and it creates opportunities for conversation — even if it’s not always a shared appreciation!

Encourage mentor/mentee relationships

Having a confidential relationship with a colleague who cares about your growth in the workplace can give a strong sense of trust and safety. Mentors can be within the organisation or outside; either way, they create a meaningful connection for those two people — and of course, benefit the company with the advice gained. And mentors too can gain valuable experience from the relationship.

Shine a light on staff

Many organisations share stories and updates on their intranet, but one government worker has found their weekly ‘staff spotlights’ do more than just fill a content gap. “Our intranet has a new story each day but Fridays are reserved for the Staff Spotlight. We have a set template of questions that range from ‘What are your top 3 pet peeves?’ to ‘What is your spirit animal?’ to ‘How does your role contribute to the company’s vision?’ We have the ability to comment on stories, and these are by far the most commented-on pages. Analytics actually show there are more views than people in the organisation, so people are coming back to see what other people say. It creates opportunities for striking up conversations in real life too. A colleague in another office even told me that when someone is selected to feature, they see it as an honour and must then bring in morning tea for the team to celebrate!”

Support volunteering in retirement

Some employees will dread not being able to use their skills once retired, so pairing up with an organisation that specialises in volunteering opportunities means retirees can find a good match in their area. While feeling supported and endorsed by their former employer and valued for the time and skills they’re volunteering, they’re also keeping up regular interaction with people and staying active in their community. The fact that a business encourages this wouldn’t go unnoticed by the public either.

The Big Lunch is good for business

The Big Lunch is an Eden Project initiative; it’s the UK’s annual get-together for neighbours. The idea is that on one day in June, everyone in the UK stops what they’re doing to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun. Eden employees are offered an extra day of annual leave if they organise a Big Lunch, as initiator of the idea Sir Tim Smit knows the impacts of well-connected employees benefit the business as well as individual communities. Many organisations already offer leave for volunteer days, but encouraging The Big Lunch as a way to use those days can result in a range of positive impacts for your business.

Make it easy for employees to ask for help

Despite over a million UK adults feeling severely lonely, and one in seven UK people being affected by loneliness to varying degrees, a stigma around loneliness still prevails. Big organisations often offer employee assistance services but there is little training should someone call up saying ‘I’m lonely’. Consider building a loneliness support service into your employee assistance package and promote it to all employees.

Create a welcoming communal area

This may seem like a no-brainer, but communal areas should be accessible, non-threatening and comfortable. A good staff room fosters conversations and relaxation, it’s not just an area for reheating leftovers. Breakout spaces in offices — a few chairs or a comfortable couch — can also encourage conversation and social situations. You may have heard of schools having a ‘buddy bench’: a place you can sit if you’re open to conversation and making friends. A buddy bench doesn’t just have to be for children. This is the physical equivalent to the Commission’s ‘Happy to chat’ badges!

Get your CSR team involved

Many organisations offer employees extra leave to volunteer, yet it’s estimated that only 19% of employees get involved. If your organisation offers volunteer leave, are there local or larger community groups and charities helping to address loneliness that your organisation could team up with? You could organise an employee volunteering scheme, or talk to your Corporate Social Responsibility/Sustainability team about potential partnerships.

Put loneliness on someone’s agenda

If you’re reading this and it’s not within your sphere of influence to take up any of these actions, then the simplest thing you can do is forward them this article and suggest any of these ideas to someone in your organisation who does have the power. Start the conversation and help us break new ground in businesses addressing loneliness and its impact to UK society.