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Many Canadian workers are experiencing greater flexibility amid the pandemic, but the rise of remote work also comes with higher rates of isolation and loneliness that many businesses believe is partially responsible for fueling what’s being called ‘The Great Resignation.’

This shift of employees leaving their current roles for new ones is happening across the country – though still in a more understated way than the mass job transition taking place in the U.S. – and workplace isolation and disconnection is believed to be partially to blame.

A survey conducted last spring by The GenWell Project, in partnership with the University of Victoria, showed 60 per cent of Canadians felt lonely many times during a week, and just under half (46 per cent) said they had the feeling daily.

As the pandemic stretches into its third year, organizations will be challenged to develop programs, strategies and a broader workplace culture designed to combat isolation and loneliness to keep employees engaged.

“There continues to be a lot of uncertainty,” says Kacy Hassack, vice-president of global human resources at Indeed, a global site where 7.5 million unique visitors in Canada turn every month to find jobs (Comscore October 2021). “With many companies continuing to offer remote or flexible work arrangements, we need to make sure people are being taken care of, now more than ever.”

For many, the excitement of working from home and the flexibility that comes with it is starting to wear off, while the ongoing pandemic is creating or exacerbating mental health challenges for employees.

“We find that happiness and well-being at work become crucial to a successful business,” Ms. Hassack says. “Addressing isolation and other well-being issues is key to not only retaining current employees but also to attracting future talent.”

How leaders can provide ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace

The effort starts at the top. Ms. Hassack says leaders at Indeed have been very forthcoming about their personal struggles in hopes of creating a culture where everyone feels safe to open up about their experiences.

“Whether you’re an executive or an intern, we’re all processing and experiencing some of the same feelings, and knowing that we can all relate can create a culture of empathy,” she says. “When leaders show compassion, when they show that they’re listening to their teams and take action to address their employees’ needs, it creates an environment of psychological safety.”

Taking a holistic, company-wide approach to combatting isolation and loneliness can go a long way in improving outcomes for all employees. Even senior leaders aren’t immune to these challenges. In fact, studies show that they are more vulnerable.

“The research I did last year shows the higher up you are in the organization, the more isolated you are,” says Dan Schawbel, author and managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, a Boston-based human resources research and consulting firm.

“Everyone needs to be part of the solution, personally; you need to reach out, you need to connect, you need to take responsibility. But at the same time, you need a manager who is checking up on you too.”

Spotting the signs of disengagement – and helping staff get back on track

Facilitating training that helps managers identify and respond to mental health issues, including feelings of isolation, within their teams is an important first step, Mr. Schwabel says.

“The manager needs to notice when someone might feel isolated or lonely or burned out and speak up,” he says. “Manager training for spotting burnout, for spotting loneliness and isolation, is really key to alleviating or solving this issue.”

Some of those signs might include social withdrawal, which shows up in small ways, like avoiding being on camera, not showing up to meetings, not contributing to group chats or not participating in company-led social activities.

“Another sign is when you have someone who used to be a good performer and you start to see substandard performance, such as missing deadlines or not following through on work commitments,” adds Robin Turnill, the managing consultant of people and culture at the Vancouver-based Pivot HR Services consulting firm.

“When people experience things like anxiety and depression, it’s hard for them to focus on work, so they’ll get really behind.”

Ms. Turnill says the more traditional in-person company culture was a key driver of employee loyalty and that remote employees who feel isolated and disconnected have less emotional ties to the company.

“Especially with ‘The Great Resignation’ that’s happening, it’s clear that anyone who is feeling disconnected from their employer would be in a far greater position to leave,” she says.

Creating opportunities for social connection and improved productivity

Ms. Turnill says the onus is on employers with remote staff to develop innovative ways to keep their workforce socially engaged from a distance. Some examples include virtual happy hours, group cooking classes, exercise sessions and wine tastings.

She also believes it’s important for virtual teams to meet up in person as frequently as possible – with health and safety protocols in mind – for activities like group dinners, company retreats or even walking groups for remote staff that live close to one another.

These types of activities were a nice-to-have in the pre-pandemic work environment. But in today’s decentralized working world, she says, employers will need to be more intentional about facilitating social connections between remote staff.

“There’s a great many people – and particularly those who live alone – who relied on work as their core social fabric, and that connection to their colleagues was such a critical part of their overall social network, their source of emotional support, and sense of fun,” Ms. Turnill says. “It would be wise for employers to create opportunities for those social connections and to be aware that this is a very real need for people.”

Some additional steps employers can take include dishing out more praise for employees, according to Indeed. Complimenting someone on their work is a simple and effective way to introduce positive affirmations. Companies should create a culture of spreading positive feedback daily, without necessarily making it a formal event.

Introducing or beefing up mindfulness and meditation are also good ways to help employees solve feelings of isolation that might come up during the workday. It may also help them to reduce stress in their personal lives, which leads to better overall mental wellness.

While it’s unclear when the pandemic will finally end, the remote and hybrid work trends it created will continue for the foreseeable future. In this new work environment, leaders will need to ensure their employees are seen and heard more than ever, whether they’re at home or in the office.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Indeed. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.