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An epidemic of loneliness and social isolation is spreading through Australian workplaces, disrupting productivity, creating serious health problems and leaving many dissatisfied.

Research has shown that chronic long-term loneliness can be as bad as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day with increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Loneliness is a rapidly emerging international public health issue. In the UK, the government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, who is tackling  this growing loneliness trend. In Australia, the Victorian Government is also considering appointing a Minister for Loneliness.

Reventure’s a future that works research confirms social isolation is an emerging public health challenge. Our ‘Precarious Work Insights’ (2018) report and ‘Best in Class’ report identifies how loneliness manifests itself in the workplace, as well as the simple solutions to address it.

For ‘Best in Class’, I interviewed ten people leaders from Australia’s leading best in class organisations and heard that loneliness is indeed a modern workplace challenge. It seems that the very tools we use to increase productivity and connectivity such as agile working, flexible working arrangements and the use of remote technology could be isolating us.

Our ‘Precarious Work Insights’ report found that 45% of Australian workers say their workplace is their main community of relationships. However, one in five Australian workers do not have trusted friends in their workplace, but would love to have some. These are confronting statistics.

So, how can we better manage and put an end to workplace loneliness?

In my presentation to the Corporate Health & Wellbeing Summit, I suggested the following for HR executives and HR managers who are grappling with the loneliness issue in their organisations.

1.      Create safe and enriching places to work

Introduce a wellbeing program and prioritise health and wellbeing initiatives. ‘Workplace Wellbeing’ (2017), and our interviews for ‘Best in Class’ confirmed employees feel more satisfied and secure in organisations that have a wellbeing initiative in place.

Proactively track wellbeing. If you read our ‘Best in Class’ report, you will discover that the HR team at one of Australia’s largest professional services firms produces dashboards to put a cost for the business, for attribution caused by burnout and over-utilisation. This helps role model and better manage health and wellbeing with regular conversations around anxiety and depression.

2.      Design high performing and collaborative work spaces

Encourage more frequent in-person interaction. Don’t send an email or instant message if you could have an in-person or phone conversation with your colleague.

Design your office space to be open and break down silos. This encourages people to get to know each other fostering a sense of belonging. This could be an ideal way to replace the “water-cooler conversation”, which seems to have disappeared from our workplaces.

3.      Nurture relationships with your colleagues

Encourage people to eat lunch together, not at their desks. A leading public software company interviewed for our ‘Best in Class’ report has a policy that no one eats alone. This encourages people to build relationships and trust, with positive flow on effects for delivering excellent customer service.  

4.      Build trust through human interaction

Encourage socialising outside of work. Positive healthy relationships with our colleagues makes us feel more valued and included, which encourages people to do their best work in their workplaces.

We can’t continue to ignore the loneliness epidemic. Despite being a complex problem, there are workplace solutions. Leaders need to lead their workplaces to foster inclusion and employee wellbeing. People need to get the best out of their work so they feel satisfied they are doing their job well and feel good about themselves when they go home at night and come to work the next day. Addressing workplace loneliness is an important step towards this. 

You can read our research and join the call for change to renew Australian workplaces, at www.afuturethatworks.org.au