Loneliness is an emotional response that everyone experiences at some stage of their lives. It is a normal response and commonly experienced in a new environment or setting, such as a new job or workplace. The COVID19 pandemic and working from home, being removed from social connections, and a subsequent fear of crowded places, led to many people feeling isolated and lonely.
Loneliness itself is not a mental health condition, but it can lead too, or worsen depression and/or anxiety. It can also increase stress and addictive coping mechanisms. It is important to be aware that having a mental health issue doesn’t equate to an illness or a disorder; it may be a mild issue which you cannot seem to budge. Any worry about the issue, can then cause a secondary issue in and of itself.
Experiencing a negative feeling is usually manageable as we recover and ‘bounce back’ when the cause is removed. However, when a negative feeling lingers, it can mean that the once off event has evoked previously hidden or unfamiliar feelings, which we find difficult to recover from. If a feeling or sense of being isolated or out of sync with others is an issue for you, there are some practical tips you can use to recover.
Loneliness can be painful because it is an intrusive emotion which can bring vulnerability, which many people may not be familiar with. When we perceive that we are alone, or isolated from others, it can evoke other negative feelings that we associate with this - such as rejection, failure or being somehow different. Those who are either working virtually or have been a lone worker with limited social interactions, may have experienced this over lockdown.
Now that public health restrictions are lifted, all social attachments and arrangements can be enjoyed. But each person has to be proactive and motivated to set things in motion again, make arrangements again, re-join institutions, return to the events previously enjoyed or start new activities. This requires planning, making to-do lists, following through with emails and phone calls and initiating social engagement which may previously have been set up.
Please note: you may need to seek assistance from a mental health professional or your GP to talk things through and find a solution suited to your needs if your negative feelings persist. Being in the physical workplace has many social advantages over working from home. Research shows that although we may not be aware, going into work involves many random social connections which are good for our mental health.
Being in a workplace not only encourages talking to others, it requires it. Even over-hearing others’ conversations, watching others doing their jobs, and completing tasks and being even a third party to other interactions all make us feel attached and engaged in a real dynamic way.
Returning to the physical workplace may be initially daunting, but tips for returning so that you get the most from it, are easy to follow.
- If you can, arrange the transport to and from work at times that reduce your stress initially, some employers can be flexible around this for the first few weeks.
- Ensure you have all the technology you need in your workplace and the proper desk and chair so that you are comfortable.
- Get as much information as possible prior to returning, about the new regime and the plans for the phased return to work.
- Phone or email people prior to the return, so that you know who else is back and who are those around you at your workplace and make that connection.
Although some people resist the return to the workplace, through fear of change or feelings of being out of the habit, what often occurs is that within a week, they are happy to be back amongst people again.
Often the fear is of the boundary – the newness and the change required to adapt to a way of working we have forgotten about.
The best way to deal with feelings of isolation are to understand yourself and your personality type – introverted or extroverted. Plan for regular activities – both social and occupational, take exercise and take small steps towards moving back into society, to the level that suits your needs.
If you prefer small groups, then that is the best way for you to organise your social interactions.
Being alone, does not automatically mean you are feeling lonely. Some people are very happy and content in their own company. People can experience loneliness when working in busy offices or workplaces. Personal issues, such as bereavement or financial worry, can induce it. As can workplace conditions, like disruptive shift patterns, difficult team dynamics, and a lack of autonomy.
Factors that contribute to loneliness include:
- Remote working with no social support: Employees working virtually may feel cut off from the rest of their team. Remote working has many benefits for employees but it is important to maintain some social contact with co-workers.
- Personality Differences: Office misunderstandings are common; but if not resolved, feelings of resentment may develop into something deeper, eventually leading to self-imposed isolation.
- Lack of social support: Working remotely or in an office full of people an individual may experience a lack of social support and if left unmanaged this could be worse for the individual.
- Office Dynamics: Unhealthy or problematic office dynamics can lead to isolation and loneliness. Pre-existing social groups may be a cause of isolation as they are not open to new employees or new managers. Everyone including those in managerial positions can feel loneliness and isolation.
If prolonged, these issues can be costly and lead to:
- Diminished productivity.
- Physical and emotional stress.
- Withdrawal from the team or absence from work.
- Weaker team performance.
Tips to address loneliness and isolation in the workplace.
- Allow time to settle into a new workplace or team. Some working relationships take time but keep making the effort to engage in social interactions. We are coming out of a period in our lives where social interactions were limited and isolation encouraged so people need time to adjust.
- Know that you are not alone in how you feel. What you are experiencing is a normal response. Talk to family, friends, or avail of workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Social interaction will help and it is good to address how you are feeling and loneliness while not a nice experience can be a temporary one.
- Have a look at what your workplace offers- workplace walking groups, lunchtime sessions, workplace groups. Join ones that are of interest to you.
- Volunteer and get involved. - Your workplace may look for volunteers for projects both work and social related and getting involved in a good way to get to know others.
- Try not to eat your lunch at your desk every day - going to the canteen and trying to get involved in a conversation with others can lead to social interactions and connections.
- Talk with your supervisor. They can offer support and guidance.
- Self-care – be mindful of diet, exercise and adequate sleep.
If you are struggling with the feeling of isolation or loneliness at work you should talk to your manager or employer. You can also seek support from your local GP or medical practitioner.
Further supports are available at:
Pieta House – www.pieta.ie / Freephone 1800 247 247 every day 24 hours a day / Text HELP to 51444 - standard message rates apply.
Samaritans - www.samaritans.org / Contact firstname.lastname@example.org / Freephone 116 123 every day 24 hours a day