What is Loneliness?
Throughout evolution, social bonds have been essential to human survival. Loneliness is an important natural emotion to help make people seek out the company of others. Loneliness occurs when there’s a discrepancy between the quantity and quality of social relationships desired and those actually possessed. However, it also carries a stigma in the modern world, preventing people from talking openly about loneliness and seeking help where necessary.
In 2017 a cross-party commission started by the late MP Jo Cox revealed that 9 million people in the UK were adversely affected by loneliness. Earlier research from Brigham Young University suggested that loneliness was as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) there is a direct correlation between being lonely and the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.
Perhaps more traditionally associated with older people, loneliness is being experienced by younger generations too. Modern ways of living, immigration, fragmented families, remote working and technology are cited as key contributing factors, leaving a growing percentage of people from all walks of life feeling disconnected and unhappy.
The UK is also well known for its long hours work culture, meaning many people find they have neither the time or energy to invest in their personal lives and social activities out of work. Workplace health and well-being programmes tend to focus on physical and mental health exercises and interventions, inadvertently downplaying the importance of social contact and emotional feelings.
Strategy for Tackling Loneliness
At the beginning of this year, the government appointed Tracey Crouch as its first Minister for Loneliness and in October 2018 the government published its first Strategy for Tackling Loneliness. The Strategy recognises the important role employers can play in supporting social well-being as part of their duty of care to employees and workers. The government is currently working with a number of employer champions to help address workplace loneliness via an Employer Pledge. The Employer Pledge is a statement aimed at tackling three key areas:
For example: leaders provide mentoring and sponsorship opportunities, as well as communicate the importance of social connections and openly talk about loneliness.
For example: the organisation establishes peer support groups, gives support for key life transition points such as bereavement, parenthood, or retirement, as well as shares information and good practice.
Supporting Line Managers
For example: the organisation provides buddying opportunities, peer-to-peer support, training on supporting loneliness and tackling unconscious bias for line managers.
A number of high-profile businesses have already pledged to take further action in the Campaign to End Loneliness and to support the emotional dimension of health and social well-being. Organisations include Sainsbury’s, Transport for London, Co-op, British Red Cross, National Grid and the Civil Service.
Low-cost Ideas to Provide more Social Support to Employees
There are also plenty of low cost activities that can help workplaces nurture social interactions. For example:
- Encourage employees to eat lunch with others rather than on their own or at their desks or workstations
- Check if any changes can be made to office and work layouts to encourage social conversations and exchanges
- Look at appropriate social activities and ways of celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or achievements
- Use group volunteering events to not only develop team working skills, but provide additional opportunities for social interactions
- Ensure remote workers and homeworkers have opportunities to meet face-to-face with colleagues
- Check that employees and managers take regular device and technology breaks
- Encourage employees to use a mix of communication media rather than just emails, particularly when they are in the same building!
If you have any other practical ideas that work well in your organisation, please do share them.
Also check out the work, resources and ideas from the Marmalade Trust.