You Can’t Fix Loneliness, But You Can Facilitate Social Connections

How can a small employer ensure that every employee has one safe social connection in the workplace?

A participant asked this question at Social Connection and Psychological Safety, part one of a two-part webinar series led by Dr. Bill Howatt on behalf of Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS).

Webinar links:

  1. Social Connection and Psychological Safety - Part 1 (44 minutes)
  2. Social Connection and Psychological Safety - Part 2 (46 minutes)

It is an important question that workplaces of all sizes should be asking. Research shows that we were suffering from a loneliness epidemic long before COVID gripped the globe. In fact, before the pandemic, 20-30% of Canadians reported persistent feelings of loneliness and isolation.

This has a real and significant bearing on an employee’s experience in the workplace. When employees suffer from feelings of loneliness and isolation, they are more likely to become disengaged, their productivity and mental health can begin to suffer, and the risk of self-harm increases.

Small steps make a difference

“Many employers think the answer lies in developing a complicated program. It is amazing how little we need to do to change our perspective,” says Dr. Howatt.

In the first webinar, Dr. Howatt outlines steps that employers can take to support employees. Not surprisingly, the first step he highlights is talking about this issue. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that open dialogue is a recurring theme. It may sound simple and seem obvious, but it is one of the most important steps you can take to start tearing down the walls that keep your employees from forming meaningful social connections at work and in their personal lives.

When you weave mental health into group discussions, one-on-one conversations, and general communications, you bring vitally important topics out of the shadows. You help people understand that they are not alone and that feeling lonely is not a result of some personal inadequacy. We make assumptions that people know this, but negative self-talk may convince them that they are to blame for feeling this way.

Loneliness is a feeling, not a fact

When people feel isolated, they give far too much credence to that negative, niggling voice in their heads. They can blow things out of proportion and believe untruths that usually start with phrases like, “I will never, or I will always…” These feelings do pass, but people can become stuck. As a leader, you have an opportunity to help employees overcome mental blocks.

Dr. Howatt discusses several ways leaders can lend support, including educating them about the link between social connections and mental health and building opportunities to connect into your employee experience strategy. He encourages leaders to assess the work culture, develop managers’ ability to make employees feel welcomed and safe, and let employees know where they can turn if they need help.

See also

He also suggests that, when we resume our regular routines, in-person activities such as volunteering, education, and attending professional events can be excellent opportunities to foster social connection.

Part 1 concludes with an introduction to a research project to study the impact of digital technology on loneliness and perceived isolation.

Hugr AC

WSPS, in partnership with an external vendor, has developed Hugr AC (Authentic Connections). It is a digital app and program that leads users through self-assessments and exercises to remove isolation barriers, close social gaps, and build and maintain social connections in and out of the workplace.

Put the power to connect in the hands of your employees

Hugr AC is a low touch solution that can be easily built into existing programs and activities. You just need to let employees know that the app is available, and once they opt in, they can move through exercises at their discretion and desired pace.

The second webinar provides more detail about how Hugr AC helps individuals forge psychologically safe and meaningful social connections.

Lynn Brownell, President and CEO of WSPS, says, “I believe it is important that we not only talk about these issues but that we back up our words with actions. The Hugr AC app and program are powerful tools that make building connections tangible and accessible to everyone in the workplace. Our entire team is being encouraged to use the app. I am extremely impressed. I believe it will help chip away at stigma and strengthen our collective capacity for connection.”

Spots are limited

This research project, funded by WSPS and conducted in collaboration with Howatt HR Consulting and Saint Mary’s University, will begin on January 11, 2021. Participating workplaces will have full access to the app and the program for six months. They will receive a copy of The Coping Crisis and be entered in a draw for a free 30-minute webinar on the link between mental health and social connection with Dr. Bill Howatt.

Participation is limited to 30 workplaces. The study will follow standard research and ethics protocols around consent and confidentiality. Interested employers will be asked a handful of questions and will be required to meet the following criteria:

  • A head office or satellite facility based in Ontario
  • Completion of the intake questions and provision of employee emails
  • Leadership commitment to support participation

If you’re interested in participating, please contact Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley at dayna@howatthr.com or Krista Schmid at krista.schmid@wsps.ca.

Building Mental Health

Hugr AC and the research project correspond with the release of the Roadmap to Psychological Health and Safety, which has been developed by WSPS in partnership with the Conference Board of Canada. The Roadmap is aligned to the three tenets of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace:

  • Prevent mental harm
  • Promote mental health
  • Resolve incidents or concerns in the workplace

It facilitates the creation of mental health strategies that are appropriate for the needs of Canadian organizations and is designed to serve as a guide to intentional action.


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