Loneliness – a risk to health we can no longer ignore

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Even before coronavirus, the mental and emotional toll of loneliness within our society was a growing worry for employers and government. Now, with millions of us having been forced to self-isolate and keep ‘socially distant’ from even our nearest and dearest, it is an even more pressing challenge, writes Charles Alberts.

Despite the devastating suffering that loneliness causes millions of people in the UK, we don’t readily talk about it, especially not in the workplace.

Perhaps that’s because it cuts to the very core of us as humans and makes us feel uncomfortable, or because it’s too often stigmatised as a weakness, an inability to function in society. Or perhaps we think it doesn’t impact us – it’s invisible so we don’t see it around us every day and whilst we know it exists, many think it’s an issue that only impacts the elderly.

Whatever the reasons, loneliness is a growing issue that we can no longer afford to ignore.Estimates put the annual cost of loneliness at over £32bn to the economy and over £2.5bn for employers. With the government setting out a strategy at the end of 2018, including the appointment of a minister for loneliness, and calls for all stakeholders to pull together to tackle this issue, and now the Covid-19 pandemic, it is an opportune time for employers to put this issue firmly on the agenda.

But now, with millions of people self-isolating or even “shielding”, many working from home, people no longer able to visit or get physically close to relatives or friends, it has never been more urgent for us to address how we manage and deal with loneliness as a society, as well as in a workplace and workplace health context.

Even before the unprecedented upheavals of the past few weeks, the way we live and work has been fast changing. Whilst technology allows us to work more flexibly, do much of our day-to-day activities such as shopping online, and even keep up to date with friends and business connections via social media – it limits our opportunities for “real” human interaction.

Workloads, demands on our time and work-related stress are at an all-time high, affecting relationships at work, preventing socialising and affecting work-life balance. Coupled with this, the number of people living on their own has increased by 16% in the last 20 years. It’s no surprise that a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 48% of us believe people are getting lonelier in general. We may be technologically connected, but we are sleepwalking into becoming the least humanly connected society ever.

Loneliness can be defined as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.”

Loneliness is deeply personal and, whilst we are inherently social animals, we all differ in our need for social connection. Some people thrive on solitude, but this should not be confused with loneliness. We can be alone and not feel lonely, and inversely can feel lonely even when in a relationship or surrounded by others.

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. But it is when the feeling is more persistent (or “chronic”) that it becomes a problem, impacts on our health, and starts to damage our ability to connect with others which only serves to perpetuate the issue. It is estimated that more than nine million adults in the UK, more than the population of London, “often or always” feel lonely.

How does loneliness impact our health?

This persistent loneliness can increase the risk of developing serious health issues and is increasingly being recognised as one of our most pressing public health issues:

  • It is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse for us than obesity, increasing the risk of premature death by 29%.
  • It is linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and dementia.
  • It increases stress hormones impacting our immune function.
  • It can negatively impact mental health playing a role in mental disorders such as anxiety, paranoia and depression. More than a third of us (42%) have felt depressed because we felt alone.
  • It increases our chances of indulging in risky habits such as drug-taking.
  • It is also a known risk factor in suicide.

Who gets lonely?

As the late MP Jo Cox succinctly put it: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.” Whilst loneliness is very common in the UK, there are certain factors that can increase the risk, such as:

  • Marginalised or minority groups (including ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and so on).
  • Living alone, moving home, moving areas or countries.
  • Changing jobs, leaving employment, unemployment, leaving the armed forces.
  • Losing a loved one, divorce or separation, the arrival of a new baby, the departure of an older child from the family home, caring for a relative or being a lone parent.
  • Developing a health condition, mental illness, disability, drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Situations that cut people off from mainstream society such as unemployment and poverty.
  • Issues more relevant to younger people such as changing schools, leaving home, starting university, bullying, peer pressure.

Some of these issues create a vicious circle. For instance, poor health and disability can increase people’s risk of experiencing loneliness, which in turn can lead to their health worsening, impact their employment prospects and exacerbate feelings of loneliness.

Employment can be a vital lifeline for social contact yet less than half of disabled adults are in employment and 45% of working age disabled people say they always or often feel lonely. The need for positive intervention and role that employers can play is clear.

What is the government doing?

Then prime minister Theresa May accepted many of the recommendations in the 2017 Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness report ‘Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time’ and published the government’s strategy ‘A connected society: A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change’ in 2018, alongside appointing the first ever government ministerial lead on loneliness.

The strategy includes three aims: to build the evidence base on loneliness, to drive a lasting shift in the way government operates so that relationships and loneliness are considered as a matter of course in policy-making, and to act as a catalyst for a national conversation on loneliness.

Fundamental to the strategy is a call to action for varied stakeholders, including employers, who are asked to support their employees to look after their social wellbeing by helping them develop relationships in and out of the workplace.

What is social wellbeing?

Social wellbeing encapsulates the power of bringing people together at work to improve their health and wellbeing through better relationships and support networks, building on the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The concept of “social wellbeing” deserves a place alongside mental, physical and financial wellbeing strategies that are now commonplace in progressive workplaces but we have some way to go yet: a study by Relate found that 42% of people surveyed didn’t have any colleagues they would see as a close friend.

Social wellbeing is also an essential ingredient to encouraging more people to engage with wellbeing in the workplace – we are social animals and are more likely to engage and persevere when we do it together.

What can employers do?

We know loneliness costs employers significant amounts through ill health associated with loneliness, the impact on carers, lower productivity and increased employee turnover. But why take action, and what can be done?

The case for action

  • Employees who are struggling with loneliness often can’t play their full part in society or at work which means both they and the employer miss out. This negatively impacts productivity through increased presenteeism and potentially absenteeism.
  • Chronic loneliness can lead to serious health concerns such as coronary heart disease, stroke and depression. The increased healthcare costs and absence resulting from this can be prevented.
  • We are increasingly becoming an agile workforce with record levels of home working. Careful thought needs to be given to how we can support people to have good relationships in and out of work despite this trend.
  • We have a duty of care towards our employees. Tackling this issue can help them be productive at work and more resilient in themselves both at work and home.
  • The workplace is an ideal setting to tackle this issue. Employers can play a crucial role supporting the social wellbeing of the people that work for them.
  • Loneliness is a multi-agenda issue affecting health and wellbeing, corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion and other areas. Much of the support will already be in place but will require a focus to ensure it is helping to eliminate loneliness.

What can be done?

The government has set out a challenge to employers to provide increased support to employees, customers and the communities they serve. It is encouraging employers to sign its “Campaign to End Loneliness” pledge, a statement that social connections and addressing loneliness are important to them. It suggests action in three areas:

  1. Leadership.
  2. Employee confidence.
  3. Supporting line managers.

Incorporating these, below is a wider range of actions employers could take to enhance social wellbeing and tackle loneliness in the workplace:

  1. Appoint a board member who will be responsible for the company’s loneliness strategy.
  2. Raise awareness of loneliness and help to tackle the stigma.
  3. Communicate the range of benefits, services and internal/external support available to employees affected by loneliness.
  4. Provide access to talking therapies such as counselling or CBT which can help address the emotional issues that make it hard for people to form relationships or that reinforce their sense of isolation.
  5. Encourage employees to broaden their work network, reaching out to colleagues in other divisions whom they may not necessarily work with day-to-day.
    Review support provided to employees during key life transition points (for example bereavement, parenthood or retirement), provide guidance and training to line managers.
  6. Allow flexible working, enabling employees to socialise whilst juggling responsibilities at home. Importantly, allow flexibility for employees work from the office if they prefer, as being forced to work from home can be isolating (although, obviously, this is more of an option for post-coronavirus).
  7. Offer training on issues that improve relationships such as conflict resolution, listening skills, teamwork, unconscious bias, emotional intelligence, inclusion, mindfulness.
  8. Encourage positive relationships at work, making sure people have enough breathing space to have reasonable level informal conversations with their colleagues during the working day.
  9. Put in place support structures such as mental health first aiders or line manager training to spot the signs and symptoms of loneliness and on how to sensitively approach and signpost employees who may feel lonely.
  10. Review your health and wellbeing programme and ensure social opportunities are maximised. For instance, instead of an individual step challenge, get teams to compete against one another.
  11. Build Mind’s “Five Ways to Wellbeing into your health and wellbeing programme, as this includes the elements “connect”, “take notice” and “give”, which all help to form connections.
  12. Do team-building right. Whether in or out of the office, it can be rewarding and doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective.
  13. Review your diversity and inclusion strategy to check if it is meeting the needs of minority groups and it uses opportunities, such as networking, to reduce loneliness.
  14. Review your approach to corporate social responsibility. Are there opportunities to help address loneliness in the communities where you operate or for the customers you serve? Can the CSR strategy be better used to bring colleagues together for instance through volunteering in the local community?
  15. Measure work-related stress and make a concerted effort to reduce it. Stress at work can cause friction, strain on relationships, lower levels of teamwork and cooperation – all of which can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
  16. Review your home working policy and address the risks of loneliness. For instance, create opportunities to regularly bring people together and invest in collaboration technology such as video conferencing.
  17. Sign the Campaign to End Loneliness pledge as the employer, and encourage colleagues to do the same.

As a society, we are faced with a significant wrong: that fellow humans suffer from a lack of connection and the resulting desperate loneliness which no person should have to face.

We can all play a part in the solution – be that reaching out to a neighbour or keeping an eye out and speaking with a colleague who has not been themselves of late.

Despite the misconception that loneliness is an issue of the elderly, loneliness impacts people in work and comes at a significant cost to employers; no more so than now and in the coming few months as, hopefully, eventually we emerge out the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.

We now have an opportunity to raise awareness and tackle the stigma, so people can get the help and support they deserve and work to foster positive, productive relationships and support networks at work.

Loneliness touches the very core of us as humans, and few opportunities exist such as this to make the world of work a force for good.

Key points

  • Loneliness affects people of all ages, including those in work.
  • It is a risk to our physical and mental health, as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
  • Loneliness is a “taboo” topic, and much stigma still exists around it.
  • Loneliness costs UK employers £2.5bn per year.
  • We need to raise awareness and understanding of it, and take action.
  • Employers have an important role to play in tackling the issue.

Charles Alberts is head of health management at Aon.

References
Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time. A call to action (Jo Cox, Loneliness, 2017) https://www.redcross.org.uk/-/media/documents/about-us/combatting-loneliness-one-conversation-at-a-time.pdf
A connected society. A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change (HM Government, 2018) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy
The cost of living alone, Office for National Statistics, 4 April 2019, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/articles/thecostoflivingalone/2019-04-04
The Lonely Society?, Mental Health Foundation 2010, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/the-lonely-society/ 
Five ways to wellbeing, Mind, https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/
The way we are now: the state of the UK’s relationships 2014, Relate, August 2014, https://www.relate.org.uk/policy-campaigns/publications/way-we-are-now-state-uks-relationships-2014 

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