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The second pandemic: what can leaders do to mitigate loneliness?

By Eleanor Miller | Director of Marketing and Communications

May 4, 2022 | 8 min read

This week, it's Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. This year's theme is loneliness. Eleanor Miller is director of marketing and comms at Mental Health First Aid England, which trains businesses to better understand and respond to mental health struggles. Here, she looks at the costs (both financial and personal) of loneliness, and what employers can do to address it.

Two deck chairs on a beach

Mental Health First Aid England's Eleanor Miller on mitigating the effects of loneliness at work / Engin Akyurt via Unsplash

I would guess that at some point throughout your career, you've experienced the thrill that comes with the fast-paced nature of our industry. Deadlines, journalist requests and client demands can drive a high-octane, 24/7 culture which many of us thrive off.

But what happens when the long working hours and juggling of projects and priorities (as well as the small matter of a global pandemic) combine to create the perfect storm: stress, burnout and mental ill health?

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week: an opportunity for us to assess our relationship with our mental health and wellbeing. It seems right to take a moment to think about how the pandemic has affected our industry and how we can better support ourselves and each other.

As adults, we spend more than a third of our lives at work (and often, in our sector, significantly more). It's imperative that senior leaders support and drive a positive transformation in workplace mental health, in turn improving the mental health of the nation.

Stress tests

How we respond to stress and how much stress we need to perform at our optimum varies greatly from person to person. This can have an impact on the roles we choose to pursue and our general sense of wellbeing. Whether it’s in-house or agency, an open and inclusive organizational culture, coupled with people managers trained in mental health literacy, influences how safe and supported a person feels to discuss their mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

I first started out as an agency account executive nearly 30 years ago. How mental health and wellbeing is recognized and supported within the workplace has changed immeasurably since then. Workplace wellbeing wasn’t on my radar, either for me or the people I managed.

In my 20s and early 30s I didn’t have the language or understanding to express how I was feeling. As a result, I wrote my symptoms off as unexplained physical illnesses. It’s only with hindsight (and increased understanding of how stress can impact mental and physical health) that I recognize it for what it was: burnout.

First aid first

Nowadays, there's greater emphasis on better job design and (in some organizations) more realistic expectations on what can be delivered. There's also more awareness, both from individuals and managers, to spot when someone might be at risk of burnout or experiencing a mental health issue. Prevention and early intervention, including self-care routines and opportunities to talk, are key to ensuring that our mental health doesn’t hit at crisis point.

Across the creative industries, many employers are taking steps to address employee wellbeing, with awareness and skills training and in some cases, the introduction of mental health first aiders to support staff. We've worked with several organizations across the sector to deliver a variety of different training, including for managers. As a leader now, I wish I had been given the tools earlier in my career to support my team and myself better.

Loneliness is not the same as being alone

This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness – something that might seem strange to us when you consider how much networking and time we have with colleagues, clients and suppliers. However, while connections and social networks can reduce social isolation, this is not the same as reducing loneliness. In the workplace, loneliness refers to feeling disengaged and disconnected from work and peers. This lack of connection with peers can lead to feeling detached from an organization and an increased risk of depression, anxiety or stress.

The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated at £2.5bn every year, primarily due to increased staff turnover and lower wellbeing and productivity; ill health; and associated sickness absence.

Loneliness can be difficult to talk about due to perceived stigma and often won't be the presenting issue. By training our people to ask the right questions, support and listen empathetically and non-judgementally, we can help turn the tide on what is being called the second pandemic, that of loneliness, both in and out of the workplace.

As we emerge from the pandemic and settle into new ways of working (at home, office-based, or hybrid), we have an opportunity to evaluate and evolve the support systems we offer.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting employees’ wellbeing and mental health. Instead, time, effort and resources need to be deployed to support a whole-organization wellbeing strategy. This can seem daunting, particularly if an organization’s efforts are focused on financial recovery. But, with the knowledge that poor mental health costs the UK economy at least £117.9bn a year, we cannot afford to overlook the importance of embedding robust preventative measures to help reduce the economic cost of poor mental health.

Ultimately, work, when done well, is good for our mental health: it provides purpose, a sense of achievement and financial security. That's why it's so important that we create workplace cultures which encourage people to be their whole self and able to have a good quality conversation about their mental health and wellbeing if they want or need to.

Four top tips to support staff’s mental health and wellbeing

First, encourage regular office days where teams come together for creative sessions, planning meetings and social events.

Second, build regular one-to-ones into staff calendars, with a focus at the start on wellbeing. MHFA England has created a suite of tools which can be used to build confidence in having these conversations.

Third, set an open-door culture so that staff feel able and welcome to message or suggest a coffee break with every level of the team.

And finally, as leaders and managers, recognize when someone might be quieter than normal. If you haven’t seen them in a while, check in on them. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly how they're feeling and ask again if you suspect they might be holding back.

For further support and advice, visit MHFA England’s website.

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