Loneliness in the Workplace

Megan Rowe
May 18 2022
Last week was mental health awareness week, with this year’s theme being loneliness, a theme and word that I think has resonated with almost all of us at some stage in our lives.
My first real experience of loneliness probably started at age eighteen, when I travelled to au pair abroad only weeks after leaving school myself, and felt completely overwhelmed by how foreign (for lack of a better word) everything felt – the food, the people (the lovely, but nevertheless strangers, that I was suddenly living with), the cultural differences, the language barrier (my A in Higher French suddenly felt very inadequate). After finally feeling like I’d settled in there it was soon time to uproot myself again for university, where I initially experienced a similar sense of isolation. These experiences, and the ways that I attempted to deal with that sense of loneliness, have shaped who I am today, the decisions that I make and the way that I act towards others who I suspect may be in a similar boat.
Lots of prominent mental health charities have naturally been placing a big focus on loneliness in the past week, with informative videos and chats with people who’ve experienced loneliness at various points in their lives and advice on how to cope with that feeling. One of the key things that stood out to me was how many people said that simply just acknowledging that we’ve all been there is a start, and that this alone can often be an effective way of attempting to tackle loneliness.
This is a great theory, and an effective one. As you know, we’re a recruitment agency, so no matter what I’m thinking about, there’s always a small part of my brain that ends up relating it to jobs and the workplace. When covid hit and working from home became the norm, so many companies began placing a much bigger focus on mental health, checking in with their staff more regularly, ensuring that people felt comfortable in their new work environment and, most importantly, that they still felt like part of a team despite working in isolation.
But this got me thinking - there’s so many jobs out there that have always involved working primarily in isolation: from artists and writers, to lorry drivers travelling the length of the country by themselves, self-employed tradesmen and cleaners.
There’s been much recognition for people who made that tricky transition during the pandemic from the office environment to working from home, and so there should be: it was certainly no easy time or move to make. But I decided that I want to dedicate this blog to the people who’ve been trying their best to make it work for years, who have constantly had to come up with new ways of battling that sense of loneliness that working in isolation brings and who’ve motivated themselves each day without the support of a team around them.
Let us begin with writers. I feel like writers are often pegged as people who crave isolation and a quiet, secluded space where they can really connect with their current project. But do we not also think that we’re guilty of romanticising a bit here? In reality, a lot of writers actually crave noise and distraction as forms of inspiration – take the ‘coffee shop effect’ for writers! TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, and F Scott Fitzgerald all wrote while sitting in coffee shops and cafes. Even JK Rowling has written some of her early work for Harry Potter whilst at Elephant House café in Edinburgh, with the stroll there helping to rock her baby to sleep, which gave her some much needed time to write. However, working in a coffee shop 24/7 isn’t realistic – for a start, coffee isn’t cheap, and the staff do tend to make people leave after a couple of hours sat writing/internet scrolling and not buying anymore food and drink (I imagine this even happened back in Kafka’s pre-wifi days). There reaches a point where writers must head home, and once they get home, they must continue to work, in isolation. And yet JK Rowling still managed to toss out seven Harry Potter books and captivate the nation along the way.
Let’s look further afield at artists and interior designers. Artists have famously worked in solitude, but more recent collaborations and initiatives suggest that this decision is sometimes borne more out of circumstance than choice. Take the Tate Exchange programme workshops, held at the Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and online. They offer a space where people can go to debate and reflect upon contemporary topics and ideas, with each year's programme responding to an annual theme, and to the question, ‘what happens when art and society meet?’ This collaboration is made possible through artists and colleagues of the Tate volunteering their own time to partake in these events, because they want to – they desire that social interaction and opportunity to bounce thoughts and ideas off one another. In their own words, these collaborations offer a space that ‘throws open what art is and what art can do’. However, this workshop is held once a year – these aren’t frequent events, but one offs, and the majority of the time artists are constantly having to look for new ways of inspiring themselves in solitude.
Our very own Karen Livingstone Welstead runs her own interior design company and is the feature of our first podcast (launching next Wednesday eek). We all know Karen as Scotland’s Home of the Year winner and top interior designer on BBC One’s ‘Virtually Home’, but during the podcast Karen offers insight into the less glamorous side of interior design – essentially carting boxes and furniture up and down the stairs of tenement flats by herself, most days of the week. This is the reality of life as an artist – a lot of self-motivation.  
However, it’s not just artists who work in isolation – but tradesmen too, cleaners, lorry drivers - the list could go on for pages. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t remember the Kent lorry chaos of Christmas 2020, when thousands of lorry drivers spent Christmas day in their trucks on the M20 after France closed its borders due to a surge in a fast-spreading covid variant. I can remember watching it unfold on the news with tears in my eyes, tears at the thought of so many hardworking lorry drivers missing out on spending Christmas with their loved ones, but also tears of joy at the kindness of people and the sense of community that had emerged through being plunged into such an unprecedented situation together. By shutting people out, France actually caused the formation of a unique community in Kent that year, and at a time when people needed a reminder of the kindness of humanity most.
So returning to the point made by a lot of mental health charities this past week: loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone, at any stage in their life and their career. But by acknowledging this, we can work to help one another begin to overcome it. That may be asking a self-employed friend who works from home a lot if they want to hang out with you in a coffee shop for a few hours for a change of work scenery, or inviting your colleagues who you don’t often socialise with out for a post-work drink one Friday night. Or it may be on a bigger scale – inviting someone into your home, as people are now looking to do to help integrate newly arrived Ukrainian refugees into society.
However you choose to do it, please do it. By joining together, we can help tackle that sense of loneliness, one step at a time. 



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