We are experiencing a loneliness crisis. As Gen Z increasingly disconnects from work with ‘anti-social working’ – the latest trend showcasing employee apathy – and businesses experience ongoing WFH issues with disillusioned employees, the way we all balance work and life has changed for good.

In fact, 2 in 3 of us don’t feel a sense of connection and belonging in our jobs, with a quarter of us frequently experiencing loneliness at work. Add the negative social impact of the cost-of-living crisis into the mix, with three in ten adults seeing less of friends and family due to financial pressures, and it has never been harder to feel a sense of belonging and forge deeper connections.

As we enter a new year with potential career changes on the horizon, businesses must brace themselves for a wave of resignations as employees look for opportunities elsewhere. HR teams will be hoping that we do not see a repeat of 2023, where 75% of UK employees searched for a new job in January, but with employees more disillusioned and lonely than ever, action is needed — and fast. It’s time for leaders to find creative ways to solve the disconnection dilemma for good.

Loneliness runs deeper than a people issue

The loneliness epidemic isn’t just affecting employees — it’s also having a large impact on businesses themselves. When employees don’t have a social network at their job, they are more likely to frequently experience burnout and less likely to say they are very productive than those with a social network. This could be a serious productivity and wellbeing problem for businesses considering that over a third of employees state that they do not have a social community or support network at work.

Based on neuroscience research, employers must look to these three core priorities to drive increased engagement with their employees. The first is proactively and repeatedly connecting people to the contribution they make to the company. By sharing goals and objectives for the entire organisation, as well as on a personal level, employees can see the result of their hard work and bond with their company and colleagues.

Next, prioritising interpersonal connection is key. Friends at work make employees feel more productive, collaborative, and creative, and employers must give their staff the space to interact and create these important relationships. In fact, 33% of employees state that regular check-ins with managers make them feel recognised and knit employee accomplishments to the vision of their company. However, organisations must appreciate that every employee wants different levels and methods of connection, so managers must ensure that they work with employees to understand their expectations and needs.  Everyone’s life experiences and brains are different. We need managers to get to know individuals on a personal level and connect with employees on their terms.

Finally, helping individuals feel a sense of belonging is vital. Currently, just 37% of employees feel that they can bring their authentic selves to work, leading to low levels of psychological safety. When we don’t feel safe in our environment, our brains can’t function properly and go into self-protection mode. Clearly, building an open and inclusive culture isn’t just a nice-to-have or optional extra. When employees feel safe and secure they can access higher-order thinking, making them more engaged in their work and connected to the organisation.

Mentoring creates connected colleagues

A core part of driving interpersonal connection is through professional programmes such as mentoring and learning and development. Not only does this bring a more social element to work and training, but also upskills employees and shows employer commitment to career growth and progression.

This professional connection is especially important for those starting their careers, with a third (32%) of Gen Z lonely in the workplace — more than any other age group. Our youngest workers already feel isolated in the workplace, so fostering mentor/mentee relationships can prove vital to providing the support and connection Gen Z needs. For instance, to help younger employees gain insight into their first workplace, or for seasoned employees re-entering the workforce, mentoring programmes offer the opportunity to learn, raise concerns, and reward hard work.

In contrast, reverse mentorship, in which more experienced employees hear the views of those newer to the workforce, can be a great way to build connections on a deeper level. These go a long way towards nurturing a sense of belonging regardless of natural differences between the generations. This can help all employees feel more connected in the workplace, resulting in a happier and healthier generation leading us into the future.

Meaningful appreciation of employees goes a long way

As a great way to connect people to their contribution and build a sense of belonging, consistent, authentic recognition is the top way for employees to feel more connected at work. It’s particularly true for the up-and-coming Gen Z workers among us. As well as regularly celebrating employee wins and work anniversaries, recognition should be based on the benefits they need. For instance, the link between financial issues and isolation is evident as people reduce spending on socialising. With a quarter of employees rating their employers’ financial wellbeing support as poor, this should be a key focus for HR teams to improve connection.

Actively listening to employees, ensuring initiatives align with their wants and needs, and communicating the support available can have a big impact on the business. When employees are less stressed about their finances, they can focus on work and socialising with colleagues. Anything from discounts on everyday essentials to improving employees’ financial IQ to offering finance options on white goods, boosting financial wellbeing can reduce feelings of stress and isolation for all employees.

Combat loneliness for good

Curing loneliness is more than emotional — it makes financial sense. When employees feel more connected, research shows that businesses can expect higher productivity, lower attrition, reduced burnout and sick leave, and more caring, engaged managers. Leaders from all departments must join forces to combat loneliness at work and create meaningful connections with employees. Because if companies don’t make their employees feel engaged and connected, those employees will find a new organisation that will.

Nebel Corwhurst
Nebel Crowhurst
Chief People Office at Reward Gateway

As the Chief People Officer of Reward Gateway, Nebel is responsible for delivering a People Strategy that supports overall success and creates a workplace environment that enables people to thrive. Nebel's HR career has provided her with opportunities to work within a variety of organisations in various industries, throughout which, her passion for delivering great employee experiences has continued to grow.