Exploring the Link Between Perceived Isolation and Psychological Safety

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

What is perceived isolation and how could this impact employees’ psychological safety?

To answer this question, it is prudent to begin by exploring the factors that can predict an employee’s mental health.

  1. Physical health - exercise/movement, sleep, diet and lifestyle choices.
  2. Mental fitness - this is often referred to as coping skills and resiliency levels. Resiliency is influenced by the behaviours and actions of both the employee and the employer. Employers who create a caring culture by demonstrating commitment to employee health, safety and wellbeing, and implement protective measures, can have a positive impact on their employees’ mental health.
  3. Social connections - the quality of relationships employees experience in and out of the workplace.

This post focuses on the role that social connections play in maintaining the mental health of employees, and the perceived isolation barriers that can strain and negatively impact an employee’s experience in the workplace.

Perceived isolation is personal, and it is dependent on each employee’s perception of their current circumstances at work and in their day-to-day lives. For example, care taking requires a great deal of time and energy and can cause people to feel isolated from their social networks. It is important to consider the whole health of employees and how their circumstances-at home and at work-influence their interactions in the workplace.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that seldom is it only one factor contributing to perceived isolation. Just as we can gain a few extra pounds without noticing, our life circumstances can shift subtly causing us to feel more isolated. We adapt and accept this as our new normal, but that can put us at risk.

Employees who experience perceived isolation, regardless of the source of the barrier, over time, are at greater risk of experiencing workplace loneliness. In the article, "Coping with Loneliness at Work," Sarah Louise Wright suggest that "Loneliness at work can be defined as the distress caused by the perceived inadequacy of interpersonal relationships in a work environment.'

Examples of perceived isolation barriers that can impact an employee’s workplace experience and social connections are:

  • Manager - employee relationship
  • Work demands
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Perceived threats to psychological safety
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Diversity
  • Mental Health
  • Work arrangements

Employers can start the conversation and increase employees' awareness of how and which perceived isolation barriers may be impacting them. Increased awareness will help them start to take positive action. A first step may be to encourage employees to complete the Perceived Isolation Loneliness Effect Survey which will provide them with results in real time, as well as recommendations for additional actions they can take to manage this risk and maintain their mental health.

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