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National mental health Awareness Week

The loneliness epidemic: How to ensure remote employees remain connected

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With loneliness being the theme for this year’s National Mental Health Awareness Week, Britvic’s Paul Graham discusses the role business leaders can play to help employees stay connected in a flexible working world.

9th May 2022
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Research from the Mental Health Foundation, which is responsible for organising Mental Health Awareness Week, shows loneliness levels in the UK have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with people’s sense of isolation and reduced ability to connect with others leading to higher levels of distress.

While we are now seeing life return to normal as part of the government’s ‘living with Covid’ strategy, many businesses are using what they have learnt over the past two years to create a ‘new normal’. 

For many companies, this means remote working is here to stay, and connecting virtually has subsequently become the norm rather than meeting face-to-face.

The option for flexible working is something that is valued by the majority of employees, which leads to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and higher employee retention rates. 

Remote working can lead to increased loneliness and isolation during working hours.

However, there is also a risk of it causing employees to feel disconnected from their colleagues, and lead to increased loneliness and isolation during working hours.

We need to think carefully about the personal costs that can come with flexible working models and the practical steps we can take in the workplace to better support our employees. 

Here are my top five tips:

1. Ensure you have the right support mechanisms in place

Unsurprisingly, around a third of adults and young people say their mental health has gotten much worse since the start of the pandemic, according to research from Mind.

This means it’s more important than ever for businesses to review what mechanisms they have in place to support employees who are feeling lonely, isolated, or suffering from poor mental health.

It is good practice to offer a 24/7 dedicated employee assistance helpline to provide everything from guidance on handling the stresses of everyday life, to specialist counselling and bereavement support. 

Around a third of adults and young people say their mental health has gotten much worse since the start of the pandemic.

Another useful tool can be to give employees access to wellbeing apps and programmes, which can provide support in a range of areas – covering work, life, and everything in between.

2. Equip managers with the right training and tools

While having support mechanisms in place is a good first step, businesses should also consider how best to promote these internally. Part of this involves encouraging managers and other employees to become mental health ambassadors, responsible for promoting good mental health and wellbeing.

Companies could provide their leaders with training sessions to help identify early signs of mental or emotional health problems and learn how to direct employees to the right places for help and support. 

Mental Health First Aid England is one of many companies that offer excellent training in workplace mental health and wellbeing support.

Having employees throughout your business who have expertise in wellbeing support and are able to point their fellow colleagues in the direction of the right resources, can be highly beneficial. 

3. Celebrate ‘difference’ and create a sense of belonging

As well as thinking about specific measures which can be put in place to support employees, it’s also important for businesses to think more broadly about how to create a culture where employees feel like they belong.

Loneliness isn’t just about feeling isolated in a physical sense – often, the loneliest people are regularly surrounded by others.

It is important for companies to cultivate an inclusive working environment where all employees are supported and empowered to be their true selves. This can involve making a concerted effort  to encourage and support network groups on disability, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

Loneliness isn’t just about feeling isolated in a physical sense – often, the loneliest people are regularly surrounded by others.

As executive sponsor for Britvic’s B-Proud network, which helps connect and support our LGBTQ+ employees, I have seen first-hand how celebrating difference and creating a sense of belonging helps employees to feel more connected to their colleagues and reduces feelings of isolation.

4. Promote flexibility without losing the sense of connection

Providing more opportunities to work remotely doesn’t have to mean losing a sense of connection with colleagues.

With many employees able to perform the majority of their work tasks from remote locations, companies should look at redesigning their working environments –  positioning the office as a space to co-create, collaborate and socialise, rather than a place where people go to do work.

It is important that your company lets their employees know that they are aware of the value of reconnecting informally, and encourages them to take time to savour life’s everyday moments and catch up with their teams over coffee or lunch.

It is not about being in the office all the time but having planned purposeful days when employees come in to collaborate with others and build social connections.

5. Encourage open culture and honest conversations 

Although we have come a long way as a society, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health. The result is that many people still find it difficult to speak up if they’re struggling.

Business leaders need to lead by example by creating a working environment where employees are encouraged to have more open conversations about mental health.

Employees should feel that their company is taking mental health and wellbeing very seriously, and are actively promoting an open culture where people are encouraged to talk about how they feel.

There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health.

Last year, for example, we joined forces with Andy’s Man Club to get more men – who are not known for being the best at opening up – to talk about their mental health.

I have already seen the impact of initiatives like this – employees are now starting to see strength in ‘opening up’ rather than it being perceived as a weakness, and it’s creating a more open and inclusive work environment for everyone. 

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