Top strategies and tools to prevent employee isolation

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are growing as employees continue to work from home. Learn strategies and tools that HR and business leaders can use to help.

Remote work has a number of benefits, but it does come with a price. For many workers, the loss of in-office bonding is a major drawback.

As many employees continue to work from home, they may experience loneliness and isolation, which can result in lowered productivity and worse. HR and business leaders can address these issues -- and, in some cases, prevent them -- by turning to strategies that prioritize emotional and mental wellness.

Loneliness directly impacts physical health and can lead to issues such as high blood pressure and obesity, which can in turn increase an organization's overall healthcare costs, said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation's Center for Workplace Mental Health, located in Washington, D.C. The organization educates employers about how to support their workers' well-being.

"Recognize the importance of addressing these [issues] as potential business costs and recognize that when people are lonely and isolated, they are not performing at their peak," Gruttadaro said.

Here are eight strategies business and HR leaders can use to help employees deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation or, ideally, avoid them altogether.

1. Take advantage of EAP vendor resources

Many organizations offer a well-being program, which is likely to include a mental health offering. But even if the programs are available, employees may not know they can access them through work. HR leaders should periodically communicate these options to workers.

Communicating the existence of an employee assistance program (EAP) as well as its benefits is extremely important, Gruttadaro said. Regularly inform employees about EAPs, digital health options and the benefits to which they're entitled.

HR leaders should also make use of EAP vendor resources.

Invite EAP or digital health vendors to lead presentations on employee loneliness and isolation, Gruttadaro said. These could also serve as manager training and cover topics such as how to identify that a remote employee is in distress.

"It is possible to see [signs of distress] in a work setting and it often comes down to change -- changes in the way someone looks, their behavior, their mood, their interactions," Gruttadaro said. "It's really important to understand what [those signs] might look like in a virtual setting and that the training exists."

HR leaders should also confirm that EAP vendors are properly addressing employees' needs.

Require vendors to submit quarterly EAP use data, Gruttadaro said. These metrics should go beyond the amount of 800-number calls or website visitors and instead focus on the following numbers:

  • the number of counselors in the EAP vendor's network;
  • the amount of people who connected with a counselor; and
  • how long it took the employees to successfully connect with a counselor.

HR leaders can also remind employees that their EAP vendor communication is confidential.

"You really need to reinforce that with employees, because people may be hesitant to reach out [because] of fear that the information might be shared with the employer," Gruttadaro said.

2. Provide connection opportunities

HR leaders should encourage managers to incorporate off-topic discussions into meetings. These informal chats can make remote employees feel like they're part of a team.

Managers can start each meeting with what Gruttadaro calls a "virtual icebreaker," which consists of questions like "What do you enjoy doing in your free time?" or "What's your favorite sports team?"

If employees are comfortable seeing colleagues in person, company leaders can help offset potential meeting space costs.

Some organizations are offering stipends for employees' shared workspaces, Gruttadaro said. Others are distributing coffee vouchers so remote teams in the same region can collaborate at local cafes.

3. Celebrate small victories

Singling out employees for great work and drawing attention to milestones is even more important when employees are working remotely.

HR leaders should encourage managers to celebrate even small wins, such as a minor achievement on a team project, Gruttadaro said. Publicly recognizing an employee reaffirms that individual's status as a member of the group.

"When someone feels recognized and valued, you're closing that gap where isolation exists," Gruttadaro said.

4. Train managers to lead with empathy

Managers may need reminders or extra training about how to support stressed employees.

HR leaders should encourage managers to be empathetic during check-ins with their direct reports, Gruttadaro said. Instead of simply focusing on a project's progress or an upcoming deadline, managers should ask, "How are you doing?"

It's really important to understand what [signs of distress] might look like in a virtual setting and that the training exists.
Darcy GruttadaroDirector, American Psychiatric Association Foundation Center for Workplace Mental Health

Managers should also be candid about their own feelings, Gruttadaro said. For example, she knows of a manager at a large enterprise who opens his meetings by sharing his own feelings and inviting his team members to do the same. Being open reassures employees that it's OK to feel stressed and may lead to workers being more candid about their feelings.

"It's a new way of checking in," Gruttadaro said. "[It] show[s] some vulnerability and open[s] the door for other people to share what they're experiencing, too."

HR leaders should also keep an eye out for manager behavior that could negatively affect employee mental health.

A number of unhealthy behaviors exists, and managers can learn to spot their own, said Tom Oxley, managing director of Bamboo Mental Health in Norwich, U.K., a firm that provides employers and managers with mental health training. Examples include the following:

  • emailing subordinates on a Sunday evening;
  • demanding that a direct report complete a task immediately when the manager is aware that the individual already has an important prior commitment; and
  • refusing to listen to an employee.

Organizational leaders should enact proper consequences for these behaviors, he said.

"[Perhaps the company] disciplines people who don't support the subject [of mental health] or who are in some way harassing or victimizing people," Oxley said.

5. Explore employees' varied circumstances

Well-intentioned mental health and well-being programs may nevertheless fail to address employees' personal problems.

Upper management usually designs mental health and well-being programs, and these leaders may not take employees' current life and work experiences into account when doing so, Oxley said.

As just one example, company leaders working from home may possess the financial resources to convert their spare bedrooms into home offices, he said. However, employees further down the corporate ladder are likely working out of their only bedroom, which may or may not be large enough to accommodate a proper desk. Leaders designing well-being programs must be aware of this gap so they can best address everyone's needs.

Employees deal with a wide range of challenges -- including lack of space, privacy, resources, quiet and so on. Working to understand those challenges is key to offering a positive employee experience and helping to prevent employee mental health issues.

"Consulting people on their varied lived experiences is so important," Oxley said. "The organization has to function -- we need to make our money, and we need to get the [company] products right -- but we need to understand the lived experiences of the people who are going to help us do that."

6. Support employee resource groups

Employee resource groups (ERGs) bring together workers from common backgrounds and can help employees who are struggling with particular issues.

For example, various companies have created ERGs for caregivers, including groups for working parents and those who are taking care of elderly family members, Gruttadaro said.

Caregivers can feel particularly isolated, so these ERGs could help alleviate that.

Employee resource groups can help remote employees connect with their co-workers and alert HR leaders to employee needs such as flex time and leave policies, Gruttadaro said.

"ERGs are a great mechanism for peer-to-peer support but also a pipeline for information to leadership," Gruttadaro said.

7. Understand how technology can contribute to isolation

Some technology that aims to prevent employee isolation can frustrate workers instead.

Company leaders should survey employees about how their technology is working for them, how it isn't and employees' thoughts on potential solutions, Gruttadaro said. For example, remote employees may have problems seeing and hearing everyone during hybrid meetings. In-office employees unintentionally ignoring remote workers during meetings could further lead to employee isolation.

Surveying workers also demonstrates that leaders care about employee experience, Gruttadaro said.

"It shows that you value [workers] and their input on this key issue," she added.

Company leaders should also understand that employees periodically need a technology break. More video meetings are not always the solution to employee loneliness.

Many organizations are now scheduling 15-minute buffers between meetings so people can reenergize before their next call, Gruttadaro said. Others are trying Zoom-free Fridays.

Company leaders setting rules for video meeting times could also help reduce fatigue.

Some organizations have established time slots when employees must be available for virtual calls and when they can take a break, said Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence LLC, an HR research and advisory firm located in Boston. For example, company policy may require employees to be available for Zoom calls between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., but workers are free to log off the platform outside those hours.

"It's really about leaders saying we know that people are working really hard -- harder if they're remote -- and therefore we need to help them with creating boundaries so that this doesn't overtake their life," Schawbel said.

After company leaders establish these policies, they should survey employees about whether the strategies are actually effective, Schawbel said.

8. Prioritize good mental health practices

Company leaders must continuously fight employee isolation and loneliness instead of establishing a few rules and assuming the work is done.

Discussing these topics once is not effective, Gruttadaro said. Instead, leaders must regularly revisit employee mental health and prioritize employees' best interests.

"This is really about creating a caring culture within your organization so that you are addressing these issues in multiple ways and you're really communicating that you care about your employees," Gruttadaro said. "Create that caring culture that makes people want to stay, especially your high performers, because they'll be the first to leave."

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