Following is an article in a recent MSPB publication on the potential for “professional isolation” from prolonged absences from the workplace due to prolonged, maximum telework.
Since the Federal Government moved to maximum telework (max-telework) in response to the coronavirus pandemic, some agencies and employees have claimed higher productivity, policymakers are considering how telework can save money in the long term, and the ability to physically distance has undoubtedly reduced the spread of the disease among the workforce. Nevertheless, max-telework arrived suddenly and arose from necessity rather than choice for many employees and organizations. In our 2016 Merit Principles Survey, only 2 percent of respondents said they teleworked full-time and 11 percent chose not to telework. The percentage of full-time teleworkers is obviously much higher now and will surely include employees who did not want to telework this much, for this long. Also, in 2016 full-time teleworkers were freer to interact personally in both their work and personal lives. Therefore, we should consider how workplace social distancing affects employees’ state of mind and explore how to mediate potentially negative effects.
One possible consequence of max-telework is the professional isolation (PI) that can result. PI is defined as the feeling that one is out of touch with others in the workplace (Diekema, 1992) and involves physical distance, separation from learning environments, and detachment from peers (Coleman and Lynch, 2006). Research by Golden et al. (2018) shows a correlation between PI and increased amounts of time spent teleworking. They also found that job performance, as rated by supervisors, was lower for teleworkers suffering from PI. In addition, PI can reduce trust in supervisors and coworkers (Mulki, Locander, Marshall, Harris, Hensel, 2008) and can be associated with workplace stress, poor relations with colleagues (Dussault, Deaudelin, Royer, & Loiselle, 1999), and feeling forgotten and undervalued (Ross, 2015).
These research findings, however, do not mean that max-telework is a bad thing or that the potential negative effects outweigh the positive results. There are strategies employers can use to reduce feelings of PI and help employees thrive in a remote environment. It starts with ensuring employees feel connected to the organization and have access to information, resources, and opportunities. Some strategies include providing access to communication-enhancing technology that enables more interactions and collaboration; holding regular staff and individual meetings to enhance communication and keep employees aware of what is going on in the organization; digitizing processes, records and supplies and ensuring employees know where to find these resources; encouraging participation in professional networks or other career-building opportunities; and paying attention to warning signs that an employee is struggling, such as reduced productivity or lack of engagement, and reaching out quickly to provide assistance.
As organizations consider how to make the virtual workplace more supportive of employees, keep in mind that today’s “new normal” poses risks of social isolation in addition to PI. Social isolation is the absence of social connections and support systems, which is likely more prevalent in these days of social distancing and staying at home. Holt-Lundstad (2015) found that social isolation can lead to loneliness which increases the risk of premature death at rates similar to those found for smoking and obesity. Studies also show there is a relationship between social isolation and suicide.
To explore this issue, we interviewed Dr. Paul Quinnett, a clinical psychologist at an educational organization dedicated to preventing suicide. Dr. Quinnett observed that the many societal changes faced by employees today act as stressors that deepen their need for social connectedness. Factors such as concerns about childrens’ schooling, loss of a sense of security, worry about being out of work, and fear of a life-threatening disease all pose an existential threat to many employees who must now cope under conditions of social isolation. Dr. Quinnett said that Employee Assistance Programs are helpful but may be underutilized because of employee concerns about stigma. Such concerns are particularly common in high-stress occupations with stringent requirements, such as nuclear regulation, aviation, law enforcement, and corrections. Some solutions that Dr. Quinnett recommended include:
Peer support groups with a designated lead who has strong social skills. Such groups can meet informally but regularly to keep people connected, grounded, and in the social loop—a virtual water cooler.
Suicide risk recognition and prevention training. Following a first responder model, organizations can sponsor training for employees in how to recognize risks, intervene at a basic level, and focus on awareness and prevention. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has a list of such training programs.
Organizational self-audits. These involve a systematic collection of local data on suicides and suicide risks to learn lessons and inform suicide prevention plans. An audit template is available from the QPR Institute.
Big data mining with predictive analytics. These may be useful for large organizations in identifying suicide risk factors and informing interventions. They, however, require vary large data sets, special software, and data scientists. As telework increases, so too may feelings of isolation associated with risks ranging from poor job performance and quitting all the way to depression and suicide. Fortunately, there are things organizations can do to reduce these risks.
Citations: Coleman, D., & Lynch, U. (2006). Professional isolation and the role of clinical supervision in rural and remote communities. Journal of Community Nursing, 20, 3, 35-37. Diekema, D. A. (1992). Aloneness and social form. Symbolic Interaction, 15 (4), 481-500. Dussault, M., Deaudelin, C., Royer, N., & Loiselle, J. (1999). Professional isolation and stress in teachers. Psychological Reports, 84, 943–946. Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Dino, R. N. (2008). The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 6, 1412-1421. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 2, 227–237. Mulki, J., Locander, W. Marshall, G., Harris, E., & Hensel, J. (2008). Workplace isolation, salesperson commitment, and job performance, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 28, 1, 67-78. Ross, L. (2015). The Human Side of Virtual Work: Managing Trust, Isolation, and Presence