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News & opinion

11 MAY 2022

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022: Loneliness

Loneliness can affect any of us at any time. While it may pass quickly for some, for others a prolonged loneliness can settle into a resigned state that feels harder to talk about. This Mental Health Awareness Week, we want to reduce the stigma around loneliness and make it easier to talk about.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a sense of loneliness and isolation in our society. Many of us have felt a strain on the quality of our relationships, having had far less access to our loved ones. Many have adjusted to quieter lives, with fewer reasons to leave our homes, as the convenience and cost efficiencies of tech drive more activity online.

While loneliness can affect us at any time, we may find it has become central to the way we are experiencing our world. Loneliness can cause long-term implications for our health, so finding ways to prevent and alleviate it is more important than ever, as we recover from effects of the pandemic and adapt to new ways of living and working.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is what we feel in the absence of connection and companionship. It describes an unwelcome feeling which may tell us that no-one cares about us and that we are entirely on our own. We all experience loneliness differently, but it is a natural human emotion; we are biologically wired for social connection, and loneliness is a sign that we need more.

Regardless of the number of relationships we have, loneliness resides within us and how we feel. This is why we can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people, or why we may not necessarily feel lonely when we are alone.

Feeling lonely can lead us to doubt our self-worth, making it harder to maintain or form new connections. The longer we have been feeling lonely, the more intensely we can be affected by it and become more detached from others.

Rising loneliness in the UK

Loneliness is one of the most searched terms on medical and health websites in the UK. It persists across most age groups, though the highest levels of frequent loneliness are found in young adults (16-24), rising from 40% in 2018 to 50% in 2020.

Before the pandemic, A report on tackling loneliness by the Red Cross in 2020 found those who felt most lonely before the pandemic have since felt lonelier, with 35% of adults reporting concern that their loneliness would worsen and 39% of adults feeling they may not recover from increased loneliness as a result of the pandemic.

The impact of loneliness on mental health 

Having social connections and a support network is one of the strongest drivers of our overall well-being. Loneliness is directly linked with poor physical health and can be both the driver for and a product of poor mental health.

The impact of loneliness on mental health can include:

  • depression
  • anxiety in social situations, and feeling the need to re-learn social skills
  • experiencing poor-quality relationships and
  • withdrawing, leading to a furthered sense of isolation.

Although loneliness is universal, treating and preventing it is complex; we all experience it differently and it has no single clear cause. Cognitive behavioural therapy is often recommended to help people cope with the day-to-day impact of loneliness. Talking therapies can also be beneficial, especially for people experiencing chronic loneliness.

Loneliness at work 

The pandemic has highlighted the flexible benefits of agile working practices, but at the cost of a workplace culture and connection. Loneliness has often been considered the domain of those visibly working alone: the self-employed, or contractors, yet we can feel lonely when working with others.

Before the pandemic, increasing numbers of people felt lonely in the workplace, with three in five people (60%) reporting a struggle to form connections at work, a Total jobs survey found. 

The same survey found that the stigma around can be more prevalent at work. Common barriers preventing people from talking about it are embarrassment, lack of trust in co-workers and fear it will have a negative career impact. While most people would tell friends and family they were lonely at work, 10% would tell their line manager, 4% would tell their HR department, and 34% would tell no-one at all. 

As we adapt to agile working practices, we also need to build and maintain meaningful connections with our co-workers. 

How can we build more connected workspaces?

Experiencing loneliness can easily feel like our own problem, but the way we work can influence how lonely we feel. 

In 2019, The Loneliness Lab reported that we feel more able to connect at work when these principles of connection are present in the workplace:

  • a sense of agency or control over our actions
  • space to be human or confident in our self-expression
  • recognition of diverse work styles and
  • value for friendship between co-workers.

The pandemic has limited our ability to form friendships and ‘weak ties’ – or everyday encounters – as we would in a physical workplace. Rather than types of connection, we can focus on upholding these principles of connection, in such a way that the value of trust and a sense of belonging between co-workers can be felt in their respective places of work.

Steps you can take if you are feeling lonely:

  • Acknowledge the effect loneliness is having on you. Loneliness is fixable, but after a while it can start to affect your mental health
  • Tell someone how you feel. We may feel ashamed or fear judgement from others but feeling lonely is very normal. Is there a co-worker you trust, or perhaps your line manager? Telling someone how you’re feeling can help pave the way for new connections
  • Don’t put the blame on yourself. When we feel lonely our instinct can often be to blame ourselves, but more often it’s because our social needs aren’t being met
  • Don’t always default to messaging. Email is the default mode of workplace communication but doesn’t build depth or trust between co-workers like a face-to-face interaction. Taking five minutes for a chat is more time efficient and often more gratifying for our social needs
  • Be proactive. Loneliness is a two-way street. Building more positive and authentic connections during your day (even small ones) can inspire and permit others to do the same. If you need a network for support, company, and networking opportunities, start one – the odds are others will want to be involved

Reach out to Lionheart. We offer a range of resources to support employee wellbeing and help you build meaningful connections. Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week, you can join an informal chat on a variety of topics, from gardening to music – to whatever comes up! You can sign up for one of our Get Connected webinar here.