Loneliness: A Growing Epidemic in Today’s Remote Workforce

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While there are differing opinions on the pros and cons of remote and hybrid work, one thing is certain, it is here to stay. According to a recent Gallup Report only 20% of remote-capable employees are working completely on-site.

Remote work has been touted for its many benefits, including a better work-life balance, increased productivity, and reduced commute-related stress. However, it also decreases the opportunities for in-person interactions and can impact behavioral health–mental health and substance use–issues, which can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, increased alcohol and/or substance use, isolation and even despair. It’s important that employers also recognize the potential downsides of remote work and implement ways to encourage employee interactions that help foster a sense of belonging.

Perils of Isolation

The impact of loneliness and isolation in remote work is real. According to a national poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “the majority of employees working from home say they experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.” The APA poll also found that stigma around mental health is compounding the issue with more than four in 10 employees worrying about retaliation if they seek mental health care or take time off for their mental health.

Additionally, remote work has exacerbated diseases of despair–medical diagnoses involving alcohol or drug-related disorders and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. In fact, addictions have traditionally been called diseases of isolation, in part because they destroy relationships and isolate people from their support systems, but also because people who have problematic interpersonal relationships are at greater risk for addiction.

Remote work has created an easy way for those with substance use disorders to further isolate themselves. For employers, alcohol is the biggest issue. A recent study by Alcohol.org, a leading provider of treatment resources and everything linked to alcohol abuse and rehabilitation, found that one in three Americans are more likely to drink during work hours when they are working from home.

Future Proofing Your Remote Workforce

Employees working from home have lost the office’s inherent opportunities for in-person interactions such as grabbing coffee together, catching up in the employee lounge, chatting in the hallway or at the watercooler, and meeting in-person. As such, having off-site employees has created its own set of challenges for employers as they seek to build culture, community, trust, employee retention and camaraderie in a completely remote or hybrid environment. From a remote worker’s initial onboarding, employers need to implement programs and processes that foster human connections, help remote workers build strong interpersonal relationships and establish an ongoing sense of community. So, what can employers do to address the “unseen” challenges of loneliness, isolation, and substance abuse in their remote workforce? Here are a few tips.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Be inclusive. Create a sense of belonging, starting before the formal onboarding process.
    • Begin creating connections before a new hire’s first day.
    • Be sure to equip new employees with the right equipment and resources, schedule “meet-and-greets,” and integrate the new hire into the company culture as quickly as possible.
    • Hold regular 1:1 meetings.
  • Establish an authentic human connection. Help remote employees feel a meaningful sense of community and personally connect with one another by providing various opportunities for in-person social activities, virtual check-ins, and virtual social events.
  • Help employees feel seen and heard. Acknowledge the challenges associated with remote work as well as the impact of the pandemic. Approach team members as people, not just workers by being empathetic and initiating meaningful conversation. Sharing our lives with others is important to help us minimize loneliness.
  • Educate your employees. Raise awareness of behavioral health–mental health and substance use–issues and when to seek help.
  • Set realistic expectations. Remind employees to be compassionate with themselves and others. Setting appropriate expectations for yourself and your team will decrease stress.
  • Make meetings more friendly. Build in time at the beginning of virtual meetings for small talk, joking, and sharing personal stories.
  • Point employees to company resources. Encourage employees to advocate for themselves and be sure to connect them to available resources.

Providing employees with access to appropriate resources can lead to increased productivity and decreased absenteeism and presenteeism. It can also lead to decreased overall healthcare costs and improve quality of life for the employees.

The relationships we form and connections we make in our personal and professional lives are vital to our wellbeing. Good leaders will find ways to foster trust, as well as a sense of equity, inclusion and belonging by intentionally and thoughtfully creating opportunities to bring people together and build genuine human connections regardless of where their employees work. By creating the right environment, employers will reduce the risk of employee disengagement, prevent burnout, and increase employee retention.

Todd Meier, Disability and Productivity Consultant Workplace Possibilities Program for The Standard and Dan Jolivet, Ph.D., Workplace Possibilities Practice Consultant for The Standard.

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