As the world moved en-masse to remote working as a result of Covid-19 there was initial bonhomie of a world stripped clean of the much-unloved aspects of working life, such as the commute and the open-office distractions. Over a year on, however, and the sheen is beginning to wear off, with people suffering from burnout, an eroding work-life balance, and isolation as social contact with one’s peers is restricted to Zoom socials.
Indeed, in Wellbeing at Work, Gallup’s Jim Clifton and Jim Harter highlight that around 25% of Americans report feeling loneliness for much of their day, with this rising considerably when people feel like they don’t have the support of those around them.
New research from York University suggests that the key to coping with remote working is to exhibit high levels of self-compassion. The researchers specifically looked at how the loneliness that is almost an endemic part of remote working life at the moment might impact not only our mental health but also our behavior at work.
“We wanted to understand what factors are driving feelings of work loneliness, and to understand how this work loneliness influenced employees’ psychological health and work behaviors,” the researchers explain. “We looked at three different factors that we thought might drive work loneliness: perceptions of job insecurity, telecommuting frequency and insufficient communication from their companies about how they were responding to the pandemic.
Each of those three factors was found to contribute towards feelings of loneliness at work, with this loneliness then unsurprisingly contributing not only to worsening mental health but also fewer voluntary helping behaviors at work.
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The researchers quizzed workers from a range of industries, including technology, retail, manufacturing, and education. Each participant was surveyed on a weekly basis from March 2020 to May 2020.
The surveys unsurprisingly found that when people feel lonely they’re far more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms. Equally, however, they were also far less likely to go out of their way to help a colleague or generally support their organization. This is particularly concerning given the clear desire during the pandemic to rally together and support one another through what has been an incredibly challenging time.
Showing some self-compassion
One of the most effective methods for buffering this was to be kind to ourselves when things are tough and to generally show some self-compassion. This was found to mitigate some of the worst effects of the loneliness that emerges when we work remotely.
“We found that self-compassion helps protect employees from some of the negative effects of work loneliness,” the researchers say. “We suspect this is because self-compassion leads individuals to be kinder to themselves, makes them more likely to recognize that they are not alone in their feelings and helps them to be aware of — but not consumed by — their negative feelings.”
Among those employees who reported having higher levels of self-kindness and compassion, they typically exhibited fewer depressive symptoms in the wake of any feelings of loneliness. Even among these people, however, there were fewer helping behaviors exhibited, which suggests there are few benefits to the loneliness felt by remote workers, even if they are able to be kind to themselves.
“We originally thought if you were more self-compassionate, you might have the energy and mental resources to engage in more helping behaviors at work,” the researchers explain. “However, it turns out that the pattern is opposite of what we expected. Instead, those who were higher in self-compassion were more likely to give themselves a necessary break. We suspect that this may ultimately help them to feel better and help more in the future.”
This negative correlation between loneliness and well-being was echoed in a second study by researchers at Aalborg University (and funded by the Carlsberg Foundation), which found that both the mental wellbeing and productivity of software engineers fell when they reported high levels of loneliness.
The paper suggests that around 20% of the workforce might suffer from loneliness when working remotely, so it’s a significant problem that managers need to address. While there has been a general desire for more compassionate leadership to be exhibited during the pandemic, there has been less attention given to the role self-compassion can play in our wellbeing at work.
“It will be very interesting for future research to continue investigating the power of self-compassion in the workplace,” the York researchers say. “For instance, it would be great to see if managers who promote self-compassion at work foster a better working experience for their employees. Ultimately, my collaborators and I hope to develop self-compassion interventions that can be utilized by companies to help their employees feel and perform better at work.”
Coping with loneliness
The paper concludes with some tips for how managers and their organizations can help employees cope with the various mental challenges posed by the enforced home working, and especially any loneliness that may result.
- Communicate clearly and regularly – Employees need to know what the situation is given this period of intense uncertainty, so it’s vital that the organization is able to communicate clearly, especially where concerns around job security and/or income may be concerned.
- Host virtual social gatherings – The jury seems to be out on Zoom socials, especially if they feel forced and contrived. The researchers argue that any such events should be strictly voluntary and solely aimed at boosting morale rather than any work-related outcomes.
- Make self-compassion acceptable – Perhaps the most important step, however, is to create a corporate culture in which self-compassion is encouraged.
The Covid period has been undoubtedly difficult, and even those among us who have not suffered from ill health or professional worries will have experienced difficulties related to the lockdown and the challenges it has introduced. Now, more than ever, we need to be kind to ourselves, and indeed to each other.