‘There will be a higher incidence of mental health and musculoskeletal claims coming through. We’re just not seeing them yet,’ says Mark Ramsook
While research abounds right now on the benefits of - and increased appetite for - remote and flexible working practices, employee loneliness is taking hold. This is having a negative effect on overall wellbeing with sleep, eating habits, stress levels and self-esteem all taking a hit, according to new findings. "The secondary lag effect on mental health and musculoskeletal related claims will be a huge challenge," comments Mark Ramsook, Senior Director - Great Britain and Western Europe - Willis Towers Watson.
Ramsook says that due to a lack of data right now on short term absences, it's hard to see where the problem areas lie. "The accuracy and validity of short term absence data over the last few months is questionable due to the fact that many employers won't be set up to record remote absences. Also, we're not getting PMI claims through. What's more, non-communicable disease - a big issue before the pandemic - is now magnified and compounded with reports of people drinking and eating more and exercising less at home.
"In short, there will be a higher incidence of mental health and musculoskeletal claims coming through. We're just not seeing them yet."
If employers aren’t proactive around this, productivity will suffer.
He adds that while the pandemic has helped employers accelerate flexible and remote working programmes, a focus on the social aspect and collaboration is needed: "If employers aren't proactive around this, productivity will suffer."
Social isolation - the evidence
Despite increased appetite in the UK for remote working practices to continue into the future, the disconnection from the day-to-day social interactions of the workplace and the encroachment of work on home lives has seen feelings of loneliness and isolation take hold, in a workforce already struggling to adapt to the challenge of the ‘new normal'. This represents the conclusion of UK job board Totaljobs on the back of its latest survey findings.
It found that almost half (46%) of UK workers have experienced feelings of loneliness during their time in lockdown. 70% found the loneliness they experienced to have had a negative impact on their overall wellbeing with only 6% believing their imposed isolation had, in fact, had any positive effect at all.
When asked about how loneliness has affected their lives during lockdown, two fifths of workers (41%) said it had a detrimental impact on their sleeping habits, a quarter (24%) on their living arrangements, 37% on stress levels, 33% on their self esteem and 30% on their eating habits.
Women & younger workers most impacted
The stresses of lockdown loneliness have also brought to the fore some of the pre-existing imbalances long present in the UK workforce, according to Totaljobs. Half (50%) of women reported experiencing social isolation and were more likely to have experienced a negative impact across all areas of their wellbeing. For example, 1 in 5 (44%) women reported a negative impact on their sleep compared to 39% of men.
Meanwhile, despite being the ‘digital natives' of the modern workforce, it's the UK's younger generation of workers [18-38] who have reported the highest instances of lockdown loneliness, with three quarters (74%) affected by the social separation brought about by remote working.
A career, interrupted
The short term effects of this social decline are already in evidence, reports Totaljobs. A quarter (24%) say loneliness has had an impact on their productivity, creativity and problem-solving abilities during lockdown.
The long term effects on everyday interactions, particularly on the ability of younger workers to learn and develop their skills at this crucial time in their careers should be a cause for concern for employers, says the report. Half (49%) worry about interrupting colleagues currently working from home, with over a third (36%) struggling to ask for help that they would usually have no issues asking face-to-face.
Across the board, UK workers are finding it hard to come forward and address this important issue with their employers. Amongst those who've felt lonely, over a third (39%) haven't confided in anyone, with only 1 in 10 (10%) wanting to bring up the topic of loneliness with colleagues in their team.
Paternalism vs individual accountability
Stephen Warnham, job expert at Totaljobs says: ‘‘Employers have a duty of care. Today's results illustrate the majority of staff who experience loneliness believe it has a negative impact on their working lives. Individuals who end up feeling disconnected or isolated in this way naturally aren't going to perform to the best of their abilities; they may even choose to leave a role which is negatively impacting their wellbeing.
"By taking steps to look after and maintain the social wellbeing of our teams, especially at a time when staff are likely to find themselves working remotely, employers can create workplaces that help staff feel more content in their roles, wherever they may be."
Ramsook adds that helping employers make much better use of the benefits and services to which they already have access is key. "Despite the greater focus on wellbeing now, there is less discretionary spend available. Therefore, there's greater pressure on existing benefit and wellbeing programmes to broaden their offering.
"But the question is, how far should employers go with regards to taking a nanny state approach, and how much should be about individual accountability."
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