Loneliness and social isolation are a problem during an age where many would suggest we’ve never been more connected, or at least more able to connect...

5 min read

Loneliness and social isolation are a problem during an age where many would suggest we’ve never been more connected, or at least more able to connect. One major social media platform calls our connections ‘friends’ – are they really friends, and to that point what defines a friend or friendship?

In survey data in 2021, the average person in America has between 3 and 5 close friends. According to the survey, almost half report having 3 or fewer friends. In 2018 the UK created a Minister for Loneliness. According to a report produced by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness more than 9 million people always or often feel lonely. A former U.S. Surgeon General has called loneliness a “growing health epidemic” and cited a study that suggested social isolation relates to a reduction in lifespan like that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness is not something we tend to talk about. Is it because as we progress through our lives, we’re somehow supposed to have accumulated friends along the way? Is there somehow a view that we’re less successful as people if we don’t have a myriad of friends or even a small group of close friends to spend time with?

There are many reasons why people find themselves encountering spells of loneliness. Divorce can often lead to a loss of friends, moving home can take you away from those you are close to, children leaving home, and changing jobs, all changes that can have an impact on our lives for different reasons. We leave making contact for what we feel is too long. We perhaps think we no longer have something in common, for whatever reason people we considered to be friends are no longer part of our lives.

Many people don’t speak to someone they know from one day to the next. The request for a coffee in their local coffee shop, the interaction they have with the cashier at the grocery store, or even an excuse me when they bump into someone on the street is the only verbal interaction they may have during the day. I know people who finish work on a Friday and don’t speak to anyone until the following Monday.

For many more elderly people who have lost a partner and seen others around them leave, it could be days and days between speaking to someone. It’s worth thinking about this when you’re next in the store and the person in front of you is fumbling with their wallet or passing the time of day with the associate. Do you really need to save ten seconds, do you need to roll your eyes or look at your watch?

I sometimes think we see a lonely person and we avoid them for fear they are going to want to talk, for fear we might somehow be tainted if we enter their orbit. We lose the ability that children have, rushing up to another child in a playground and after five minutes announcing them as their best friend and asking when they can come over for a playdate. People would likely be concerned if we took that approach as adults but there is a midpoint between the two. Most of us living in urban locations will meet around 80,000 people in our lifetime. If we took the brave step of being bold and starting a conversation who knows what that might lead to?

During the past few years, many people have encountered forced time alone. Being unable to spend time with others, whether at work or at leisure has taken its toll. Now, across the world, we’ve seen restrictions coming to an end and we can spend time together again.

However, since the pandemic the way many office-based employees are working in a hybrid fashion. Some days in the office, some days at home. We don’t always see the people we used to have close connections with, we might be in the office on a Wednesday, they may be in on a Friday. Unless we actively plan to meet there is a surprisingly small chance of it happening by accident.

There are actions we can take as employers that can make a difference. When people feel lonely, they are more likely to suffer from low-quality sleep, a weaker immune system, and poor mental health. The first action to take is one of understanding. If more people were aware that according to research undertaken by the new economics foundation, loneliness costs £2.5 billion a year in the UK alone. This is because of the impact of the issues mentioned above.

As leaders we can help our teams, help individuals, and help one another by acting:

1. Support individuals - Putting in place structures and activities that address loneliness is part of our empathy focus. To have a empathic workforce, to embed empathy across our businesses means we have to act

2. Destigmatize loneliness – there is no one description that signals loneliness. In the same way, there are many different causes and manifestations of depression. Talk about it, educate one another on the signs to be aware of, the non-intrusive questions to ask

3. Educate people - Leadership and management responsibility means creating an environment of trustwith. To explain the role of listening and staying connected. Encourage a culture where people feel confident and comfortable speaking up and out

4. Ensure every business is clear on its values - The pandemic caused many people to stop and think. To judge what is and what is not important. Many individuals want to work for a company that has values they can support, and working for a company that makes them feel proud became more important. As a person, if I feel I’m making a meaningful contribution, my feelings of self-worth improve and there is a direct link between how I feel about myself and any feelings of loneliness I might have

5. Be inclusive – another word for lonely is secluded. Helping people come together and to recognise that every voice counts, and everyone should be heard is empowering. We can’t have the lived experience of anyone other than ourselves, but we can be empathetic, we can reach out to people we know less about, and we can work with people from different departments to bring their views and experience to a project. We can make people feel included

6. Measure what works – the adage, what gets measured gets done is no less relevant in this context than it is when managing a product launch. Find out from members of the team how they feel today, what they would like to see, and how they would like to feel act upon the suggestions and measure again in 3 months/6 months’ time

Finally, I’d say there are many different resources available. We should not look to the solutions we see in our immediate sphere of understanding. There are some interesting books, a wealth of advice online and many like-minded people that would be as keen to talk to you as you might be to them.

Loneliness is unsustainable. Empathy is about embracing the mental well-being of all and many of the symptoms of loneliness negatively impact how someone feels and how they perform.

Solitude, quiet and being alone are often amazingly energising. Being lonely is the opposite, it’s not something we crave, and it is demotivating on so many levels.

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