Perhaps unsurprisingly, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is loneliness.  We humans are generally social creatures and the reduction of social contact during the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness.  This has had a huge impact on mental health across the nation.  It can be a vicious circle as loneliness can cause poor mental health, and poor mental health can cause loneliness.

Even as many of us have slowly started easing back into our normal social lives outside of work, a “new normal” has emerged in the workplace – homeworking.  Whether that means you’re working fully remotely, or if you have started a new routine of hybrid working, many people who’d previously been doing a 9-5 in the office every day have now adopted new ways of working.

For many of you, this will have been a welcome change and I’ve heard many of my friends wax lyrical about the benefits of working from home!  Others may rely on the workplace to contribute to the social contact that they need and so may have been finding it difficult to adapt to this new normal.

Even if you haven’t experienced loneliness when working from home yourself, it’s likely you have a friend or colleague who has.  There aren’t always any signs that people are struggling, and everyone is different with how poor mental health and loneliness manifest themselves.  Maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it but have noticed that somebody just isn’t quite themselves.  Perhaps they’ve stopped speaking or switching their camera on during team video calls. (Although it could just be that they have Zoom fatigue or they don’t want you to see the pink, fluffy unicorn onesie that seems to be their new uniform.)  Maybe there’s no hints at all! It can be so tough to figure out, especially if you are only in touch with them remotely, or only see them in the office occasionally.

The most simple but effective piece of advice I have ever been given is this: Ask them twice! In our society (or at least where I’m from), asking “you alright, mate?” is basically just a polite greeting akin to saying hello.  People will rarely give you anything other than the uniform response of “Yeah, you?” So, ask them twice.  Whether you think they may be struggling or not, ask how they are, let them respond politely, and then ask again.  It really reiterates that you’re genuinely interested, and they’ll be more likely to open up if there is something they want to talk about.

Technology isn’t always a satisfactory replacement for face-to-face interactions, but if in-person meetings are not possible, then make the most of what technology can offer!  Virtual coffee-breaks with colleagues can go a long way towards replacing those chats you used to have when you bumped into each other at the water cooler and can be a great opportunity to ask them how they are (twice!)  As seasoned home-workers, most of you are probably already aware of the benefits of regular catch ups with each other – but it is easy to slip into bad habits as time goes on, so it doesn’t hurt to remind everyone to check in with each other.

Those of you managing teams may also want to ensure that as well as having regular Teams chats with your whole team, you are also having regular one on one chats to check in with individuals.  To help you improve and support mental health within your workplace, you may also want to consider training some employees as Mental Health Champions.  MHCs actively promote good mental health, organise events and liaise with the senior management team on trends and how the business can help.

Obviously, I am biased, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that our Emma and Graham both deliver a MHC course.  Both are fully invested in championing good mental health and heavily contribute to the supportive culture in place here at Gateway and so I can confirm that they practice what they preach!  If you are interested in learning more about the course, please click here. Of course, whilst having a MHC, or five 😉 in your company would be really beneficial, there are also lots of mental health organisations offering some great resources. From daily mindfulness calendars,  to apps providing supportive communities online, to practical ideas to get people talking in your company.

Whilst I am truly optimistic that this week will go a long way towards shining a spotlight on loneliness in our communities, I hope we all continue to raise awareness and offer support to each other week after week after week, not just this week.

I could probably waffle on forever as I have a lot of interest in mental health, but I doubt Gateway will be best pleased if I try to publish a dissertation instead of a blog, so I will leave you with the below links to useful resources and further reading.   Take care of yourselves, and remember to check in with your friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues!

About the Author: Stacey Duncan

Stacey Duncan
Stacey is one of Gateway HR & Training's HR Advisors. As well as all things HR, she has a passion for promoting positive mental health, inside and outside the workplace. Stacey holds a CIPD Level 3 in HR and is currently studying for her Level 5 Diploma.