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Modern Life, Loneliness And Work

Humans are herd animals. A bit of alone time is fine when it’s on our terms and not for too long. Loneliness is quite another matter. Everyone feels a bit lonely from time to time. Figures suggest that it’s becoming a serious social issue for all ages. Loneliness makes us unhappy, and can make us ill.

There are lots of different reasons for loneliness: divorce, bereavement, ill health, empty nest syndrome, moving to a new area, redundancy and career problems are a few of the common causes. Changes in our social arrangements may have an impact. The Office for National Statistics reported that by 2011, there were 7.1 million single-person households in England and Wales, an increase from 6.5 million over the previous decade.

The jury’s out on social networking websites. One school of thought believes that socialising online exacerbates loneliness; another argues that it helps people stay in touch.

What happens in the wider society usually finds an echo in the workplace. Years ago, the pundits predicted that we’d all be working from home within a few years. It didn’t happen in anything like the numbers expected. While it sounds attractive in principle (you can wear what you like, avoid horrible traffic jams and expensive parking fees, stay out of the direct line of fire in office politics),people really like working with other people.

If we have workers who are spending some or all of their working time at home, one of the things we need to consider is isolation. Employers have to do a safety risk assessment of the employee’s work environment, including an identification of risks to mental health. Whether isolation is likely to be a problem depends on a number of factors:

  • The basic resilience of the employee. Someone who prefers a lot of guidance or is easily distracted, or who requires a lot of social stimulation, may struggle.
  • How often is the employee working at home?
  • What kind of work is the employee doing?
  • How much interaction is involved with colleagues and clients by phone, conferencing and site meetings?
  • What's the employee domestic situation? This can make a substantial difference to the sense of isolation.

Recently we did some work with a client, one of whose long serving employees had been going through a divorce and it had hit him very badly. He is a home-based sales representative. Although he had always performed well in the past when he had a stable home life, some of his recent behaviour was quite out of character. He swore he was well enough to work, but it was clear that something was not quite right. After exploring things with him, it emerged that there were some isolation issues. We expressed our concerns and have agreed with him that he will make more visits to the office for an agreed period of time. This will help us keep an eye on him while he comes to terms with his change in circumstances. We want to be sure we understand his situation and the effect it has had on him and this will enable us to make reasonable adjustments to help him if need be. He is responding well and we hope that he will settle down again in the near future and develop his new coping mechanisms.

Loneliness is debilitating and if you have a home worker who is feeling like that, you won’t get the performance you want. Give some thought to ensuring that the employee has regular interaction with other people in the course of the working week. You can have face-to-face Skype calls, as well as phone calls. There may be client or prospect visits they can make and regular visits to the place of work to ensure they feel included.

There are those who say that getting a dog to keep them company when they work at home (might be OK I suppose) or working from a coffee shop (not too sure about that one) work well for them. Keep an open mind and remember that open communication and a regular monitoring of the employee’s performance will help you prevent problems or identify and deal with them at an early stage if they do arise.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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