Combatting employee loneliness through employee recognition

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forcibly separated workers from their colleagues and community, the importance of community and social wellbeing at work was already beginning to rise. Now though, it’s an even more important part of the employee experience. Not only is workplace loneliness now at worryingly high levels, more than half of employees now say they feel lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’, with almost half saying they don’t have a friend at work. 

Combatting employee loneliness through employee recognition

The fact is, the more connected we feel to other people, the better our overall health. Strong social connections are what make up community wellbeing (also known as social wellbeing) and now, more than ever, it’s time employers started to build more of a commitment to creating supportive, trusting communities. 

Coronavirus has prompted Government intervention

Because employers have a unique opportunity to better support the wellbeing of society, in May 2021, the UK Government published new guidance for employers about tackling the growing issue of loneliness in society. In a cross-government strategy involving the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Campaign to End Loneliness, the Loneliness Employers Leadership Group (LELG) was established. This working group has identified several actions for employers to better support loneliness at work. Two of these recommendations have a strong base in employee recognition schemes:

  1. Culture and infrastructure: Identifying what really matters to employees and aligning with corporate values. This includes factoring loneliness into other wellbeing and welfare activities. 
  2. People and networks: Considering how people have positively used networks to tackle loneliness including whilst working remotely.

The UK Government believes that the very features of the workplace can trigger or exacerbate feelings of loneliness. The LELG has made it very clear that it thinks employers should be using their values to instil a sense of belonging in their people to encourage the development of community at work. This is especially the case as more employees work remotely and flexibly. A primary recommendation is to create a culture that promotes meaningful connection between employees – something we know employee recognition schemes can have a significant impact on. 

The growing importance of community at work 

Community wellbeing relies heavily on the quality of social support we get from our colleagues that help us to feel like we belong. Our emotional attachment to work is driven by how far we feel we can participate, and if we feel like we have a voice and opinions that are listened to. A strong sense of community at work can be cultivated with a wider commitment to offering the tools which enable employees to experience positive, regular interactions with each other 

There is now also a growing body of evidence that shows when most or all the elements of community wellbeing come together in a positive way, the impact on the individual and the organisation is significant. Some studies have found that when community wellbeing is high, employees report less conflict between their home and work lives. We also have evidence that community wellbeing directly correlates with life satisfaction and employee mental health 

The simple fact is, humans are made to be social. We're not designed to be on our own. In fact, we strive for connection with other people so much that loneliness is now a strong predictor of premature death. A study that looked at 13,000 patients with heart conditions found that when they had poor social connections, their conditions were exacerbated. Scoring low on factors like size of social network and perception of support carries a similar risk to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to one study.  

When people feel more connected to their employer’s values, purpose, and their colleagues, at its extreme – these feelings lead to lower mortality rates. We’ve known for some time that loneliness can exacerbate ill health. But we also know that having a community of people around us at work (a community that can care and appreciate us and can interact regularly in a positive way), can have a huge effect on our wellbeing and feelings of loneliness. 

Recognition is no longer nice to have, it is a core element of wellbeing 

It stands to reason that a lack of positive, social interaction is harming employee mental health. A recent study of 20,000 American employees found that only half now said they have meaningful personal interactions with people on a daily basis. Research has found a lack of recognition at work is a predictor of higher levels of loneliness, and we know that being acknowledged is one of our very basic human needs. With a lack of recognition, we are experiencing fewer of those moments that connect us to other people.  

Recognising the efforts of colleagues brings employers closer to them. When staff are thanked by their colleagues, it has the same impact in our brain as being given money.  The ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex are reward centres in the brain which are activated when we get thanked or receive compliments. But it’s not just recognition that improves our wellbeing. Research from Mendoza and Schultz has shown that the reward centre in the brain lights up when just observing someone being thanked. Seeing someone else receiving recognition has a positive effect on all that witness it. 

So now more than ever, we need ways to encourage employers to support the development of social capital at work. As we are settling into a new hybrid way of working, it’s never been more important to see the pivotal role recognition plays in the employee wellbeing and the employee experience – and with the forming of the LELG, the UK Government has started to agree 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is just how much we need small, regular, and positive interactions with other people. It’s time for employers to take the baton from the Government, to bring back more of these moments of positive exchange. Now it the time to start encouraging employees to recognise and thank each other more often. Not just for our people’s success, but our organisations too.  

The author is Gethin Nadin, director, employee wellbeing at Benefex.

This article is provided by Benefex.

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