Confronting loneliness: our shared responsibility

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Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce: 2024 Report landed in my inbox last month, and among its many insights, one hit home both personally and professionally: loneliness.

I’ve felt it occasionally when working from home - a pang of isolation, as if I'm on a small floating island, close enough to see the world but too far to connect.

Gallup reported that 20% of the world's employees experience daily loneliness. Not occasionally, but daily. The numbers are even higher for those under 35 (22%) and for those working from home (25%). It's alarming, but it's also a reality that many of us, including myself, grapple with.

I posted a message in our workplace Teams chat saying that I wanted to write something specifically about the loneliness insight from Gallup’s report. I wrote “There have been days when I confess I have felt lonely when I have had periods of working more from home and it does have an effect.” A colleague responded, “I too have felt lonely WFH at times - it impacts me very oddly. Thank you so much for sharing that and I would love it if we didn't feel it a confession to share.”

I contacted yet another colleague, who provides training in mental health to discuss loneliness. He said he’s sorry to read that I’ve felt lonely, he too has felt it at times. We agreed to check in with each other for a social chat once a week. This simple interaction was significant. It was a step towards recognition and towards doing something about it.

Loneliness – some wider context

In November 2023 the World Health Organisation declared loneliness as a pressing health threat and launched a new commission to foster social connection as a priority in all countries. Chronic loneliness has devastating effects on both physical and mental health. The risk of mortality for people who lack social interaction and community ties is twice as high than for those who have many social contacts. And while loneliness is not a mental health condition, chronic loneliness can lead to depression and serious psychological conditions. In terms of physical health loneliness results in an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Many reports equate it with obesity and smoking.

It follows that loneliness cannot benefit organisations. A joint report by the Co-op and New Economics Foundation in 2017 estimated that loneliness costs UK employers approximately £2.5 billion annually. This report considered associated costs brought on by sickness absence; loss of productivity; caring responsibilities necessitated by conditions associated with loneliness; and the cost of temporary staff replacements. The report concludes that loneliness is largely neglected in the workplace and strongly suggests that employers use both reactive and preventative approaches to minimise it.

Today in 2024, more of us are likely to be affected by it. The Pandemic brought it more into the spotlight and also left us with a new world of hybrid and home working. For many people this new way of working has delivered huge benefits, but we need to be smart in recognising when we are impacted negatively - in the same way as being smart when sitting out in sunlight. Too much exposure can be dangerous.

Understanding loneliness  

Loneliness is not about being alone, it involves a sense of emotional lack[i]. It’s highly subjective and quite different to social isolation, an objective state. Anyone who has ever found themselves in a crowded room and yet felt entirely alone will know this.

Loneliness is not inherently bad. As pointed out by Paul Kelly from Marmalade Trust, in a webinar for the Employment Lawyer’s Association, loneliness is our body’s way of telling us we need social connection, much like hunger tells us we need food. If we feel lonely, we need to act. Yet, it isn’t always easy to spot when we are lonely. And one of the reasons is people just don’t talk about it enough.

Loneliness and stigma

Despite its natural role, loneliness is stigmatised. As I sat down to write this blog I thought of “Billy no-mates,” a phrase coined in the 90s by comedian Harry Enfield. It depicted a sad, lonely man, who literally had no mates. And people laughed.

Its natural that none of us want to be seen in this way. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why, when we say we are feeling lonely, we often end up using terms like "suffering from" or "confessing."I'm grateful to my colleague who said she would "love it if we didn't feel it a confession to share."

My conversation with two colleagues about loneliness and its effects underscored the need to get comfortable discussing it more openly and with honesty. If we share our stories, others will feel more comfortable doing so. And let’s be frank, we have all felt lonely at some stage.

If we know more about it from our collective stories, we can identify and do something, rather than leaving it too late. My colleagues and I talked about how loneliness can affect us in ‘odd ways’ so that it’s not immediately obvious what is going on. It was different for each of us but some of the things that came up were feelings of lethargy, subtle changes in mood, a feeling of being slightly disjointed from the world, sadness, drawing in on oneself and being less motivated to connect, when connection is exactly what is needed.

What about organisations and their role?

Organisations should consider structural changes that promote connection, particularly in a hybrid world. This could include team-building activities, social events, or time for non-work-related discussions. It could also include risk assessments for lone workers and hybrid workers along with systems designed to encourage check-ins. That’s a whole subject matter in itself, perhaps for another discussion.

Organisations also need to appreciate that addressing loneliness shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of line managers. The Gallup Report found that managers are more likely to be stressed, angry, sad, and lonely than non-managers. They probably need more support, not additional burdens. Please look out for and look after your managers.

Personal accountability

While structural changes are needed and awareness can be raised at organisational level, ultimately we all need to take ownership. Recognising our feelings of loneliness is the first step. This is our wellbeing, our quality of life.

My colleague Mark and I have decided to meet regularly for a coffee catch-up. Despite our busy schedules, we found a time and put it in the diary. It would have been easy to brush it off and its not going to be possible every week. But then we make time for so many other things at work, I’m not sure why connecting with each other should be any different.

[i] Fay Bound Alberti ‘A biography of Loneliness’

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