Social wellbeing: Where workplace loneliness and diversity meet

At first glance, social wellbeing may seem like a relatively isolated division of wellbeing – or even a less-important one compared to say financial or mental wellbeing. But like all intersections of wellbeing, it contributes to a wider picture of wellness as a whole, and in turn informs employee experience.

Positive or negative social wellbeing will have a significant knock-on effect to other areas of wellbeing, and likewise is impacted by its counterparts in return. So it’s no surprise that social groups who are more at risk of poor mental or financial health often also find themselves struggling with social wellbeing.

Social wellbeing is broadly defined as the extent to which you feel a sense of belonging, social inclusion and social stability.

When it comes to social wellbeing at work specifically, a large component of this is loneliness and socialisation. As social creatures, when our social wellbeing is low, naturally the rest of our wider wellbeing also goes downhill. Those most at risk of loneliness at work can largely be split into two areas:

Social groups – unified by a common aspect of their identity or protected characteristic which (often) increases social isolation, such as age, ethnicity, sexuality, mental illness etc.

Work groups – unified by style of working pattern which amplifies solitude, such as remote workers, shift or night-workers, and employees required to travel a lot.

Loneliness across intersections

We traditionally associate loneliness with a specific persona: usually someone elderly, perhaps widowed, who lives alone. But in reality, loneliness is a lot more insidious, and – while we can profile those who may be most susceptible to loneliness – it can affect anyone, regardless of social, work, or life circumstances.

Reports do indeed show that older people experience high loneliness: there are 1.4 million chronically lonely older people in England. However, the age group most likely to report feeling lonely is in fact those aged 16-24 – with 10% feeling lonely often or always, versus 3% of over-65s.

Single parents are another group often forgotten about; being a parent – especially a new parent – can be incredibly isolating; you give up a lot of freedom and autonomy for someone else, so it’s natural to feel alone. While a close circle of relatives or friends may be able to offer support, for most single parents without a second caregiver, this isolation is increasingly pronounced.

When it comes to social groups characterised by elements of identity, groups with the largest communities may also be the ones most at risk of experiencing extreme loneliness. For example, BAME employees might have a large family network, but have less involvement with peers, or be more isolated in a largely-white workplace. Your LGBTQ+ employees may also feel outcast from peer social circles, and will often have less contact with family networks. While the LGBTQ+ community is an opportunity for companionship, some people may feel unsafe to reach out for fear of ‘outing’ themselves or attracting unwanted attention at work. LGBTQ+ people are also less likely to engage with local services, with recent research showing over four-out-of-five do not trust professionals to understand them.

Working to isolation

Just as some industries lend themselves to long hours or close-knit teams, some professions simply lend themselves to increased isolation. Many of these positions (night shift security, for instance) are perhaps ideal for introverted employees who prefer working alone. However, a majority of the most isolating careers are also the ones which require the most sociable employees…

One example is your Sales team – these people will be constantly travelling to and from pitches, staying overnight in new places, and are probably not in the office more than a couple of days a week. Surely that role would therefore be perfect for an introvert who enjoys their own company? But the very nature of a Sales job asks for someone sociable who thrives in others’ company. Similarly, shift work can isolate employees from the rest of the 9-5 world, but a significant portion of shift work comes under customer service or healthcare roles – which are again, inherently positions which attract (and call for) ‘people people’ and extroverts.

So, while isolation in many ways ‘comes with the territory’ for these jobs (and thus applicants are aware of the alone-time), that does not mean these employees are immune to loneliness – quite the opposite, in fact.

How can employers help?

With such a wide range of employees vulnerable to loneliness at work, it falls to employers to create a social wellbeing buffer that will ensure everyone has their social needs met, regardless of working pattern, job role, or where they fall on the intro/extrovert spectrum.

Improve diversity and inclusion

This is where your diversity and inclusion strategies come into play – for many social groups (such as LGBTQ+ people), isolation comes from a lack of acceptance, identity peers, and safe spaces to be yourself. Consider how your policies promote equality and self-expression, and address any issues or individuals which are detrimental to this.

Work towards removing barriers that isolate these employees, and actively create safe spaces for minority groups and intersections. Why not implement an LGBTQ+ employee union, or a mental health group? Groups like these offer an opportunity for peer support and socialising at work even if employees are missing this at home. A great example is Tesco, whose internal BAME network initiated the supermarket’s new extended range of skin-tone plasters.

Devise social strategies to address specific teams

While it’s important to have regular check-ins and catch-ups with all your employees, this is even more crucial for those who are more isolated or lonely. For work groups, this can be challenging, so instead, address how you address the issue! Check in regularly with your remote or travelling workers, and consider factoring in scheduled ‘social time’ if possible. For employees based in a single location, their social needs are boosted just from a chat in the kitchen or as they sit at their desk – for other employees, that’s not possible. So it’s even more important that they attend work social functions – whether that’s the Christmas party, or scheduling in time for them to grab lunch with a co-worker who’s travelling the same way.

Offer relevant employee benefits

You can also help support all your employees, vulnerable to loneliness or not, through a well-rounded employee benefits offering. Benefits like childcare or babysitting services are great for single parents, while EAP and flexible working policies support everyone.

Don’t underestimate your introverts

Don’t underestimate the power of introversion – both in an introvert’s ability to avoid socialising, and in their need to still socialise. Introverts need to socialise just like everyone else – just a little less often or doing different activities.

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Going forward

However sociable your culture is, or tightknit your ‘work family’ may seem, you will have lonely employees. Your workforce is made up of many individual ‘pockets’ of people who are vulnerable to loneliness. They may be easy to miss, they may be out of sight, or quiet about it – they may even seem like they do fit in. But just because at a wider glance, they objectively seem like part of your organisation, doesn’t mean they don’t feel incredibly alone. For many people who’ve been told they’re ‘different’, there is nothing more isolating than being surrounded by other people who appear to ‘belong’ when you feel as though you don’t. So, check in, be proactive, and open up the conversation.