Lonely this Christmas: The Health Insurance Group warns businesses it may not be festive cheer for all employees

Christmas can conjure up many images: spending time with loved ones, having a break from work, partying away the rest of the year, and generally over-indulging. But for many employees, Christmas can be a difficult time: highlighting loneliness, forcing reflection on a bad year, and remembering those who are no longer with us.

Before employers get carried away with merriment, it’s important to remember Christmas isn’t always a positive season for everyone. In fact, a third of people (36%) are too embarrassed to admit they are lonely at Christmas. The Health Insurance Group highlights some of the misconceptions about loneliness and how employers can support employees through the festive season and beyond:

Loneliness doesn’t discriminate

Loneliness is often associated with older generations, who are more likely to have experienced bereavement, be out of the workplace and suffer from poor health – all of which can contribute to general loss of human contact. But, in fact it is more likely to affect young people – with 10% of those aged 16-24 saying they were “always or often lonely”, the highest proportion of any age group.

As Jo Cox, the MP that set up the ‘Loneliness Commission’ but was murdered during the EU referendum, said: “loneliness doesn’t discriminate”. Loneliness can affect anyone, particularly those that don’t feel a sense of belonging or who have gone through recent fundamental changes; vulnerable groups can include new parents, individuals that have changed job or town, and those recently bereaved. Employers need to be mindful that loneliness isn’t an issue associated with one age group – but it can affect the entire workplace. Not only is it a moral duty to support individuals, but it’s a business issue too – as loneliness could be costing private sector employers up to £2.5 billion a year due to absence and productivity losses.

Health and wellbeing

It is estimated that loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – and it is also linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s, depression, cognitive decline, coronary heart disease and stroke.  With Tracy Crouch appointed as Minister for Loneliness this year, the issue of loneliness has been recognised as one of the greatest public challenges of our time – alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing. The pressure this puts on the NHS and businesses is significant. So it’s important that businesses incorporate support for loneliness within their health and wellbeing provision.

How employers can support lonely staff

There are a number of ways that employers can support their staff with tackling loneliness.

Some employee benefits, such as private medical insurance and group protection, can include counselling services. These can sometimes be included at no extra cost and some are also available to all employees, even those that aren’t insured by the main product. So it’s important that businesses fully familiarise themselves with what’s included in their employee benefits package.

Another way is with an employee assistance programme (EAP). As they can be available 24/7, 365 days a year, they allow employees to discuss their issues confidentially with someone who can point them in the right direction for further support, at a time that suits them. Some EAPs can also come with mental health apps attached, which can make them more accessible and engaging for younger employees.

Most importantly, employees need to be made aware of all the support available to them throughout the year – not just for Christmas – and know how to utilise that support when needed.

Spotting the signs

Loneliness, as with other mental health issues, can be difficult to identify. The apparent happiest and liveliest employee in an office, could be struggling with debilitating loneliness. Once colleagues are aware of an issue too, they are often unsure as to what next steps they should take to help. That is why offering mental health training, through organisations such as Mind, can be invaluable. Training gives employees the tools to identify mental health concerns, along with the knowledge about how they can support them most effectively. Meaning that whilst others may be distracted by all the festivities, there are trained employees able to spot signs of someone struggling ahead of – and indeed post – Christmas.

Brett Hill, managing director at The Health Insurance Group, comments:

“We are living in a world where everything from shopping to work can be done online. This has led to a decline in actual human interaction and is believed to be linked to increased rates of loneliness. As employees spend so much of their time at work, it’s important that businesses support them in preventing loneliness where possible. Whether organising a buddy system for those new to a company, keeping a close eye on a new Mum or Dad that has returned to work, or ensuring an employee recently back from compassionate leave knows there is bereavement counselling available – it’s important to support employees in what can be a challenging time.

“Recognising that loneliness isn’t easy to spot and can affect anyone is also imperative for businesses to remember. Having trained staff to identify concerns, and business initiatives in place to adequately support those going through a tough time, can help to maintain a happier and more productive workforce. With Christmas and New Year just around the corner, it’s important employers remember that not all employees may be joining in the festive cheer, and would benefit from additional support.”