1st May 2020
3 Min Read

World Changers - Explore the trend: 'A Lonely Workforce'

Kate Went
Kate Went
Culture & Change

This year, we released our first World Changers report, looking at the trends likely to impact on our world of work in the coming year and beyond, and what this means for organisations and their people. While we couldn’t have seen the Coronavirus crisis coming, many of the 10 topics we featured are coming to the fore more than ever because of the current situation.

In our ‘World Changers – Explore the trend’ interview series, I asked lead behavioural scientist Lindsay Kohler about the growing loneliness epidemic in workplaces, why this was a problem before COVID-19 and how internal comms can help turn the tide.

Lindsay, why did you choose to shine a light on loneliness within the report?

Even before the coronavirus, it was a growing issue. (I don’t have that much crystal-ball insight to have foreseen a pandemic that would cause world-wide isolation). One of the stats I shared in the piece is that GenZ is the loneliest generation to date. It’s become a bit of a trope – 'we’re all connected more than ever and yet so disconnected'. But it’s true and we’ve been sliding into that state for some time now.

Loneliness also has huge impacts on mental health. It’s well known that a strong social network helps people to live longer. We’re uniquely social creatures, and so this shift to more people being lonely is troublesome. With the COVID-19 crisis, I think we’re in the midst of a huge natural experiment, where we’ll start to see, at scale, the health impacts of isolation.

I also want to keep expanding the narrative on mental health. It’s been under a spotlight in recent years, which is amazing, but I think there is still somewhat of a stigma surrounding talking about your feelings. Especially talking about your feelings at work and with your colleagues. But the more we talk about — and the more people who talk about it — the more we are able to normalise the behaviour.

Why do leaders need to have this on their radar?

The economic ramifications of loneliness on businesses are significant, and leaders know that. It can be hard to put a concrete number on things like wellbeing, health, and productivity (and thus the bottom line), but smart businesses will invest in these resources anyway because it’s the right thing to do.

Particularly now there’s huge pressure to look after our workforces, week to week as we navigate through the crisis. I was recently a guest on an employee wellbeing webinar and looking through the questions submitted, 'finding ways to keep colleagues feeling connected' was one of the biggest concerns.

Maybe one good thing to come out of this pandemic is people will feel more comfortable reaching out to one another. Businesses should invest in more tools, campaigns and ways of working that foster connection. That desire is never going away, and it's stronger than many of us realised.

As someone who uprooted their life in San Francisco to move around the world and join a new team in a new city, you must have felt the impact of loneliness personally?

Oh definitely, but it was a specific type of loneliness. I had lots of friends in London already, so that helped, but I missed being part of a larger friend group, if that makes sense. It’s been nice having group video chats with friends back in America now that we’re all home and able to coordinate times much easier.

To some degree, having a really welcoming team to join made things easier. Everyone is connected on and offline, which I hadn’t experienced at work before. In fact, one of my best friends in London I met at work, which was fantastic!

In writing this section for the World Changers report, what did you learn about loneliness you hadn’t considered before?

Just how fundamental belonging, social groups and connections are to who we are and how we operate as a species. This was the first time I’d considered loneliness not just from a communication perspective (like I had in the past running mental health campaigns for companies) but from a social perspective. You can thank behavioural science for that.


Discover this and nine other World Changers topics in our 2020 World Changers report.

More articles in the 'A lonely workforce' series:

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