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Why social isolation at work is everyone’s business

Many or even most of us have had the experience – at some time or other – of being present, but isolated, in a large social gathering of unfamiliar people. If everyone else has their backs turned to you while they chat and laugh and you are quite left out, the feeling of social discomfort can be demoralising and depressing.

Though it may have a low profile compared with more obvious WHS issues, social isolation at work can be a major issue for employers in terms of morale, productivity and psychological wellbeing.

The feeling of connectedness with other people appears to be a deep-seated human need that underlies all sorts of social interaction, from attachment to family, to support for a favourite football team, to membership of gangs and extremist religious groups. Positive interaction with like-minded people can be a powerful restorative in times of disappointment, alienation or distress.

Lack of supportive social interaction at work can combine with the impact of people’s private circumstances on their psychological wellbeing. According to Beyond Blue, in any given year, about one million Australian adults are depressed, more than two million are struggling with anxiety, and almost eight Australians take their own lives every day. Social isolation is understood to be one of the many signs of depression.

Inevitably, the social environment and stressful incidents at work can exacerbate underlying mental health stresses and difficulties.

Moreover, our jobs take up so much of our waking life, it’s not surprising that our feelings about our work and our workplace have a central place in who we think we are.

It’s well-established that most people don’t work for money alone – respect and appreciation from colleagues, development of a good reputation and engagement in teamwork with others can boost a person’s confidence, generating satisfaction and a positive self-image.

Conversely, if employees feel they don’t belong, that they’re ignored and not respected by their co-workers, this is more than likely to undermine their commitment and productivity, with flow-on costs to the organisation in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and conflict-riddled team dynamics.

Some commentators have also claimed that the stress from loneliness and social isolation can actually cause physical as well as psychological damage to health. For example, a clinical psychologist and researcher who has studied the impact of loneliness in people over five, 10 and 15 years recently told a popular Australian current affairs program that the stress from loneliness seriously damages the body’s immune system as well as our mental health.

It’s reasonable to expect, therefore, that social isolation at work will raise the likelihood of long-term sickness absence or workers’ compensation claims due to ‘work stress’. Employers have every reason to avoid such outcomes, if possible, as these tend to be the most expensive of all types of WHS issues – expensive in terms of productivity and management time, as well as compensation payments and their impact on employers’ annual premiums.

Employers’ responsibilities

Employers have a primary duty of care to manage work-related risks to their workers’ health and safety, and ‘health’ here includes psychological health.

While it may seem a lot to ask, there may also be a lot to be gained if employers and senior managers can include a recognition of the social cohesiveness of their group in their understanding of the overall picture of the work safety, health and the productivity of the business.

Ideally, team leaders should be given training in how to spot mental health issues in staff and how to respond, especially when more than a few of the symptoms of depression or anxiety persist over time. If employees are restless, irritable, over-sensitive to slights or threats, often absent or late, and show a lack of interest and focus, these may be signs that the person is suffering from psychological health issues.

Problems of social isolation can be addressed and alleviated to some extent by building a culture of openness and social support, and by honesty in two-way communications between management and staff.

Though it can be uncomfortable and involve some friction, genuine worker consultation and a system of 360-degree feedback can make a valuable contribution to a management information system conducive to a better understanding of hard realities, individuals’ difficulties and consequently better decision-making and more positive commitment from everyone involved in the business.

This article was written by Gaby Grammeno and first published on hradvanceprofessional.com.au

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