A blog by Alice Beveridge
I’ve recently had the privilege of working with a fantastic, exciting and diverse range of young people. Many of these have come through programmes funded by the Kickstart Scheme; a government initiative to provide funding to employers, creating jobs for 16 to 24 year olds on Universal Credit and at risk of long term unemployment.
I use the word privilege above very intentionally. The young people I have met recently are talented, qualified, creative, hardworking and have the potential to positively disrupt, challenge and improve our organisations.
There are a few challenges holding many of them back right now though.
The world is currently in a very precarious position. Employment opportunities, internships and work placements have all been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, lots of young people saw the opportunities they had been working for disappear in front of their eyes. Through no fault of their own, many found themselves furloughed, unexpectedly unemployed with many relying on universal credit to make ends meet.
Financial instability is stressful enough, but another key theme that raised its ugly head again and again while I’ve been working with these incredible young people is loneliness.
It jars doesn’t it. Many of us who are a bit longer in the tooth think back to being that age and we see parties and holidays, evenings out with our friends.
We usually associate loneliness with the elderly, but there is a pandemic of loneliness occurring among our young people right now. In fact, research suggests that the group most at risk of loneliness is not 65+ as we may expect. It’s 18-24 year olds!
Though we are more able to connect with those around the world through the wonders of technology, what tends to be presented through social media is a perfectly curated life.
…NOT THE ISOLATION
Not the hours, weeks and months spent alone in homes across the country with limited interaction with other people, let alone their peers.
For many, friendships drift naturally after university. People move away for job opportunities, which present the chance for new adventures and new relationships to develop.
For many over the last year though the only move has been back home to parents houses. This may provide some creature comforts, and for many being with family has been a source of great comfort during the pandemic but we must recognise that loneliness is a real and present danger to the long-term wellbeing of our young people, who let’s face it are literally the future.
There is a difference between being alone and loneliness. Many people enjoy being alone. It is not about the number of friends you have. It’s about how you feel. There is a clear distinction between social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation is the inadequate quality and quantity of social relations with other people at the different levels where human interaction takes place (individual, group, community and the larger social environment).
Loneliness is an emotional perception that can be experienced by individuals regardless of the breadth of their social networks.
Being socially isolated can lead people to develop feelings of loneliness, but it is not the only trigger.
How can employers help?
As an employer you can help support young people and all employees in dealing with loneliness in a range of ways. Here are a few suggestions to get you started…
- Make time for informal conversations. These are part of the parcel of office life, but not so easy to replicate virtually. They won’t happen if you don’t make time for them
- Try a buddy or mentor system, especially for new members of staff. This can provide a much-needed life line for young people as they enter the professional world of work.
- Consider the training opportunities available for your young people. Are they purely functional? If so, consider some soft skills training or coaching where the young people will feel psychologically safe. This training should be holistic. Many struggle to adapt to the time management pressures of working life so supporting them to develop a routine which includes self-care, life maintenance, social interaction and their day to day professional responsibilities can be key.
- Encourage an open culture where employees feel they can talk about their mental health. A very real side effect of loneliness is depression and/or anxiety. This can form a vicious cycle where people don’t reach out or attempt to establish friendships.
- If you don’t already have one introduce a mental health at work policy to ensure staff know what support is available, how mental health in the workplace is managed, and provide emergency contacts.
- Adopt a mental health first aid scheme with trained members of staff who can identify the signs of ill-health and who can provide support and raise awareness. Promote the support available such as employee assistance helplines, training, counselling and any other benefits.
- Encourage staff to maintain a routine – planning their time and taking their holidays, keen an eye out for employees who are working excessively, and this suggests a lack of work life balance and can be symptom of loneliness.
- Provide training covering topics such as managing stress, mindfulness and personal resilience, as well as training for managers and senior staff on supporting employees.
- Being an approachable and sympathetic manager and supervisor is particularly important for junior members of staff and make the time to have regular catch ups.
- Embrace initiatives like the Kickstart Scheme to provide opportunities and training to young people.
There is lots we can do to support our people to stay connected in a virtual world. It all starts with recognising where the challenges lie. Loneliness is not always a lack of company, it can also be a lack of purpose!