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Working from Home – Social Isolation and Lockdown

Since the Government’s announcement of a second lockdown, an array of different reactions from the public were unveiled. The rising number of new Covid-19 cases exacerbated feelings of uncertainty – particularly about when things will finally revert back to some level of normality. One thing is for certain though: even with lockdown finishing and the start of a vaccine rollout now underway, working from home in some format will not be disappearing any time soon.  Even when we find a new normal and get back into a position with a better balance, it doesn’t negate the need to ensure that we look after our people now.

Considering that the benefits of working from home and positive attitudes towards it appear to be so apparent, it seems like a no-brainer to make the shift. Be that as it may, this inevitable change might not be advantageous for all.  It is important to consider that, for some individuals, the convenience of working from home comes at a cost.

Time to Read: 6mins

Social Isolation working from home

The move to Working from Home

According to a YouGov poll, a staggering 68% of British workers had never worked from home prior to Covid. For many managers, the prospect of introducing remote-working meant increased worry around lower levels of productivity, employees wasting company time or simply job roles not being compatible with working outside of the office.

However, the pandemic has drastically shifted the outlook on remote working. An enforced push out of the office and into the home has shown that employees are capable of getting the job done elsewhere, with some citing that they are even more productive at home. On top of this, a lot of people have found that working from home comes with added benefits such as more time with their families, saving money, and increased flexibility in working schedules – in many cases, leading to a better work-life balance.

Based on this, it isn’t surprising that a multitude of individuals are in favour of continuing to work from home once the pandemic is over. In surveys conducted by Baker Stuart, 87% of respondents said that they would like to continue working from home, at least some of the time, if given the opportunity post-Covid. In addition to this, it is predicted that many organisations will adopt a long-term shift to flexible working in the future.

That said, being away from the office comes with its downfalls, especially as we are currently confined to the inside of our homes the majority of the time, and unfortunately for many, moving from lockdown to the national tiered system hasn’t changed this. We need to start to consider longer term consequences.

Building Relationships when Working from Home

When working in the office, building close and meaningful relationships comes naturally due to consistent exposure to your colleagues. Not only are workplace friendships natural – they are also important. Most people spend a large portion of their time working. It’s a commonly accepted fact that the average person would traditionally spend around 90,000 hours of their life at work.

For many, it can be a place where their social needs are met. Being in the office opens up the possibility of casual passings on the stairs, impromptu conversation by the kettle and those entertaining Monday morning revellings about how everyone spent their weekend.

Research shows that these kind of informal conversations in the workplace lead to better relationships amongst colleagues – in turn resulting in greater job satisfaction, stronger social support between co-workers, and improved collaboration and innovation where people are not afraid to share their ideas and concerns. 

So not only do friendships at work benefit employees, they also benefit employers in terms of productivity and efficiency. Who knew that those, seemingly insignificant, informal chit-chats and office gossip were actually a very important aspect of work life?

Building meaningful relationships with colleagues has become increasingly difficult since the sudden move from office to home took place. Now that virtual meetings with a set agenda and team calls filled with various faces are the standard form of communication, its harder than ever to slip in casual conversation – let alone anything that might be considered a little more private. In a lot of cases, it might feel like there isn’t the space for these kinds of discussions whilst working remotely.

Not only is the quality of these conversations important, but the quantity too. Humans are naturally very sociable so it comes as no surprise that having our primary source of daily interaction taken away so abruptly has left many struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The Impact on Mental Health when Working from Home

It is important to consider the fact that loneliness is incredibly personal and subjective. A lack of social interaction doesn’t necessarily mean that someone feels lonely. There are some people who have absolutely thrived whilst working from home and may be content with minimal contact, as a result of their subjective perception of loneliness. Conversely, someone who would normally regularly engage with a lot of people may feel completely alone. The way everyone experiences loneliness is unique.

However, that being said, social isolation is a predictor of loneliness, especially for some groups of people. For example, research from the American Psychological Association has found a prevalence for loneliness among those who live alone, women, or people with existing mental health conditions, to name a few. Since the pandemic began, feelings of loneliness and isolation have significantly increased, with the numbers escalating even more dramatically as lockdown continued. During the previous lockdown, MentalHealth.org found that these feelings doubled within the space of mere weeks. For this reason, it is important to understand that there are fears that, once again, the already present crisis of nationwide loneliness is likely to have intensified during the second national lockdown and move to a tiered way of living.

Feeling lonely at times is completely normal, and short-term loneliness doesn’t usually have an enormous impact on health. However, by this point, it seems pretty safe to say we are in this for the long run, particularly as home-working is set to stay. When loneliness becomes long-term, it can have serious impacts on mental health, leaving it very difficult to manage.  One of the most common outcomes of chronic loneliness is an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

In a time filled with dread, fear and uncertainty, it has been hard for a lot of people to remain positive. With this on top of all of the other factors that play into pandemic-related worry (job security, health concerns, financial troubles etc.), it is very easy to get caught up in a flurry of negative emotions. The decline of the nation’s mental health is evident. An article published in People Management earlier this week confirmed an increase in mental health-related sickness absence since the start of the pandemic, with two thirds of people with existing mental health problems reporting that throughout the pandemic, their symptoms have worsened; and many people who were mentally healthy beforehand are now finding themselves struggling.

The Impact on Physical Health when Working from Home

Its not just mental health that’s in danger as a result of loneliness and isolation linked to working from home – physical health can also be impacted. This can be for various reasons. One of the risks may be due to risky behaviours associated with poor mental health such as substance/alcohol abuse, smoking, and under- or over-eating along with physical inactivity.

Loneliness can also have a direct influence on the body physiologically, as a result of excessive perceived stress. Prolonged stress can lead to cardiovascular problems and significantly reduced immune functioning which can lead to serious health complications.

The Dangers of Loneliness and Social Isolation

The dangers associated with loneliness are profound – so much so that they are comparable to other widely-researched, well-established mortality risk factors such as substance abuse or chronic physical illness; yet most people are unaware of the threat that it poses.

Research by the American Psychological Association has found that social isolation, both objective and subjective, increases health risks as much as alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Loneliness is also said to be twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. There is substantial academic evidence that social deficits may even be more predictive of premature mortality than many of the risk factors that people commonly worry about.

With this in mind, since working from home results in an unavoidable lack of physical interaction, it is vital that social needs are still being met whilst home working continues to be the norm.

 

Combatting Social Isolation and Loneliness

It may seem like an enourmous challenge to curb social isolation when physically being in the office isn’t an option for so many of us. This is particualrly challenging as the state of mind that comes with loneliness can discourage someone from making efforts to reduce the feeling. One way to help is to encourage openness.

According to research by Mind, half of employees do not feel comfortable disclosing poor mental health. Not only does encouraging discussion about mental health create a safe place to express challenges or struggles; it also reduces the stigmatisation of mental health issues within the business.

Opening up about feelings of loneliness, if you feel comfortable in doing so, can create an environment where others also feel confident enough to share their own experience. This could help someone who is in the same position but too afraid to speak up. In addition to this, in organisations where there is openness and discussion about mental health, employees are 8 times more likely to feel like their organisation supports their mental health.

Furthermore, actually offering support to those who are identified as needing it is also important. When people feel supported by their organisation, it has a huge impact on improving mental health outcomes.

However, even with stigma being reduced and an open environment being adopted, enhanced or maintained, there may be some employees who still will not feel comfortable expressing their struggles. For this reason, it is paramount that other solutions are put in place where needed.

Here at Baker Suart, we have recently been discussing some ideas on how we can increase informal socialisation even when not in the office. Here are just a few of the ideas we are looking to implement in the New Year:

  • Lunch time social – joining your colleagues for lunch and have a chat about whatever you like maybe even what you are having for lunch (this can also encourage healthier eating whilst at home)
  • Online games
  • Daily snapshots – creating a space to upload photos from your day, this can encourage people to be more active, get out and take a picture of something exciting or it could be a picture of something new like a haircut, jumper, pair of shoes etc. that might’ve been noticed and received compliments in the office.
  • “virtual break room” – a casual non-work related social space whatever people want to share with their colleagues, anything that might’ve been a hot topic whilst making a tea or coffee.
  • Remote fitness – for example, a remote yoga class, fitness challenges (e.g. step challenges), or anything that promotes movement and exercise.

If, like many, your organisation is looking to continue with increased remote working for the long term once things are a bit more normal, It might be a good idea to think about what you could have in place to promote socialisation and make it feel a little less lonely. So… get colleagues involved and come up with some ideas. Be adventurous and have fun! You could come up with something that the whole company loves and really make a difference to colleagues who are struggling.

Lauren Melling

About the Author: Since joining Baker Stuart just over a year ago, Lauren Melling has provided a huge amount of experience based on her degree and post graduate studies in Psychology.  In particular she has added depth to the surveys we provide; ensuring that we ask the right questions in the right way in order to get the best results for our clients, without bias.  When not working for Baker Stuart, Lauren is invariably found crafting – with crochet hooks in hand.

Baker Stuart

About Baker Stuart: We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.

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