Article: Is employee loneliness leading to loss in productivity?

Employee Engagement

Is employee loneliness leading to loss in productivity?

Employees are suffering from loneliness and subsequent mental disorders. Here is how HR can make a business case by highlighting the cost of loneliness to employers.
Is employee loneliness leading to loss in productivity?

The world is plagued by mental health hazards. A recent WHO report reveals that 322 million people suffer from depression worldwide – a number that has increased 18% between 2005 and 2015. The number in India alone stands at 94 million people (7.5% Indians) who suffer from major or minor mental disorders that require expert intervention. Stress is all the more prevalent in workplaces. According to data from Optum, 46% of the workforce in organizations in India suffers from some or the other form of stress.

Loneliness has been cited by psychological research as one of the reasons for mental disorders ranging from stress to depression; and in some extreme cases, even suicide. Loneliness is one of the reasons behind the deteriorating mental wellness of employees. 

A fair proportion of the workforce works remotely in isolation, making them susceptible to loneliness and eventual mental disorders. Not only the ones working alone but individuals in a crowd can also suffer from loneliness.

With employee wellness and productivity a major area of interest for HR professionals, it is important they highlight this to the business and get their buy-in for investment in this area. The question that has prevailed is – ‘how’. A research done in the UK answers that question. The research – 'Cost of loneliness to UK employers' done by the New Economics Foundation uses a robust methodology to measure the cost of loneliness of an employee to the business. The methodology can then be used to articulate a strong business case for investment in curbing loneliness for employees.

In this article, building on the methodology used in the research, we explain a customized methodology that can be applied to good effect for measuring the cost of loneliness in an organization.

How to build a case?

Loneliness impacts both health and well-being; which has an eventual impact to the business. The report ascertained that poor employee health outcomes lead to increased absenteeism and lower employee well-being leads to lower productivity and decreased retention (See figure 1 for a detailed matrix). 

Cost of loneliness

Figure 1: Person-centred impact framework

Source: Cost of loneliness to UK employers, New Economics Foundation

Hence, loneliness impacts four quantifiable business metrics:

  • Sickness absence

  • Days lost to carers leave

  • Lower productivity

  • Lower staff retention

For each of the aforementioned metrics, here is how one can establish a correlation between loneliness and the respective metric.

1. Sickness leave

Step 1: Identify which are the health hazards that can be caused by loneliness. 

Take expert help in documenting the symptoms of minor and major mental disorders caused by loneliness.

Here are some of the hazards which are caused by loneliness, as proved by psychological research.

Step 2: Check for hard evidence in the workforce.

Identify who among the employees show symptoms of such disorders (whether the employee is working remotely or in-office)

Assistance from expert psychologists is advised because individuals are usually not comfortable revealing loneliness because it is more of a social stigma.

Step 3: Find people who have been out of work due to this sickness

Individuals who have cited any of these symptoms to take medical leaves or have submitted medical certificates and/or prescriptions while availing leaves need to be counted. If the employee size is too much, systematic random sampling can be done to make an assertion.

The cumulative absenteeism is the business metric which has been impacted by loneliness.

2. Days lost to carers leave

Step 1: Gather all available family records and update health records of the family.

If no records are available, circulate forms and gather information if any next of kin is suffering from any illness. 

Step 2: Check for hard evidence

Identify records of absentees who have taken leaves to take care of family members suffering from mental disorders associated with loneliness.

Step 3: Document absenteeism of carers

Count the people who have taken carer leaves for their next of kins suffering from mental disorders.

The count of carer leaves is then the second business metric impacted by loneliness.

3. Lower employee productivity

Step 1: Measure loneliness among your employees.

Campaign to end loneliness’ has devised a simple methodology to measure loneliness. Ask employees to state one of Strongly Disagree/Disagree/Neutral/Agree/Strongly Agree/Don’t Know for each of the below statements:

  • I am content with my friendships and relationships

  • I have enough people I feel comfortable asking for help at any time

  • My relationships are as satisfying as I would want them to be

The responses are to be coded as follows:

  • Strongly Disagree – 4

  • Disagree – 3

  • Neutral – 2

  • Agree – 1

  • Strongly Agree – 0

The sum of the scores is to be calculated. The people with scores of 0 are the least lonely, and 12 are the most lonely.

Step 2: Measure employee well-being.

One of the methodologies that can be used is that developed by The Office for National Statistics in the UK (tweaked slightly for workplace context). Ask people the following:

  • How satisfied are you with your life @work nowadays?

  • How happy did you feel yesterday at work?

  • How anxious did you feel yesterday at work?

  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your work are worthwhile?

Ask people to answer on a scale of 1 to 10. For the question on anxiety, reverse the score. Add all the scores (the reversed score for the anxiety question) for each employee. If the score is 4, then the well-being is the least, and if the score is 40, then the employee well-being is the maximum.

Step 3: Establish the correlation between well-being and loneliness.

Test the hypotheses – 'Employees who are lonely also have a low well-being quotient' and 'Employees who are not lonely have a high well-being quotient.' If both the hypotheses come across as true, you know that loneliness is affecting your employee well-being.

Step 4: Check the productivity levels of employees, and you can then make a correlation with the employees in accordance with their degree of loneliness and well-being. 

The correlation can be presented as a business case. 

4. Lower staff retention

Step 1: Measure the loneliness and well-being of employees as explained in the previous point.

Step 2: In exit interviews, ask employees if they are leaving because of dissatisfaction with the job they do.

Take a sample of responses, and establish the correlation between job satisfaction and loneliness/well-being. 

Following the above two steps would then prove that a proportion of employees leave in part due to loneliness, and that can be the case behind investment in curbing this

It isn’t just productivity that should drive the HR function to advocate for mental wellness. 

"Loneliness is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help," – Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., Resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

People suffering from loneliness also need additional support to open up about their condition which makes the HR’s role as the employees’ mouthpiece all the more important.

You can download the complete research here.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Strategic HR, C-Suite, Life @ Work

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