The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently, but there’s one common experience being shared worldwide: isolation.
With ongoing remote work, widespread school closures and continued restrictions, individuals are finding themselves removed from the social relationships and support they had previously enjoyed. While social distancing and staying at home are crucial to fighting the pandemic and protecting public health, this level of isolation can also prove harmful to physical and mental health.
During a recent Workplace Wellness Insider webinar, Dr. David Batman, a member of the Science Advisory Board for Virgin Pulse, explored the impact of isolation on health outcomes—and some steps that wellness professionals can take to protect employees.
Isolation, he explained, can take many different forms for different people—and it doesn’t always stem from being physically separated from others.
Those living with spouses or partners could be in a deteriorating relationships—and being in close proximity could actually increase their sense of isolation from them. Even wearing masks, a crucial behavior in the pandemic, can increase feelings of isolation, as they inhibit our ability to have face-to-face communication even in the same room as others. Those with hearing disabilities who rely on lip reading may have a particularly difficult time.
The uncertainty of this time can also contribute to a sense of isolation. Without a clear end to the pandemic or any playbook to navigate it, many find themselves feeling lost and confused, which can increase feelings of loneliness. Health care workers, faced with high-stress situations and fears for their safety, may experience isolation even as they are surrounded by colleagues.
Age can also have an impact on how isolation affects individuals. For millennials and Gen Z, being bombarded with negative news on social media platforms may contribute to isolation, while uncertainty about retirement plans and an increased risk of COVID-19 comorbidities may preoccupy the elderly.
The consequences of isolation are much more profound than we may realize, Dr. Batman stressed. Concerns about health, job security, financial well-being, social justice, politics and more are at an all time high in 2020, and isolation can worsen fears and anxiety about these topics.
The effects of this can quickly show up in our personal and professional lives. Individuals suffering from isolation and anxiety can experience sleep disturbances, mood changes, difficulty concentrating and remembering things, substance abuse and more. At work, this can show up as reduced productivity, distractibility, absenteeism, disengagement and burnout.
What can wellness managers do to mitigate these detrimental effects of isolation? Dr. Batman stressed the importance of encouraging positive thinking—by helping employees to reframe their situation in a way that gives them more control over it, you can help them feel less isolated by it. For example, employees can be encouraged to use the time they would normally spend commuting as an opportunity to focus on personal and family activities. He also suggests recommending the following healthy behaviors:
- Limiting news consumption
- Creating a set work schedule and designated working areas in your home.
- Building daily rituals.
- Eating healthy foods, exercising and getting enough sleep, and avoiding alcohol, drugs and caffeine.
Dr. Batman also explained that wellness managers should be careful not to jump too quickly into performance management.
“Get to know your employees as individuals, so you’re able to see when their behavior is out of the ordinary. If they do show changes in behavior, have discrete conversations with them and show empathy first and foremost,” he recommends.
Maintain a knowledge of what resources and services your organization offers, so you’re able to direct employees accordingly—but don’t be too quick to have them take time off. Being able to continue working can be beneficial for employees if it gives them something productive to focus on.
Prachi Patel, director of product marketing for Virgin Pulse, reiterated that now more than ever, it’s crucial to pay attention to how isolation is affecting your workforce, and to give employees the additional support they need to thrive.
“The cost of doing nothing is too high,” she stressed. A holistic and personalized approach to employee well-being is nonnegotiable for businesses trying to navigate the effects of COVID-19.