Discussions of loneliness echo with stereotypes. The divorced woman in late middle age, the unemployed former soldier, a young professional in a new city – and those who are single for a myriad of reasons when it is not their choice.
Such stereotypes usually carry a ring of truth but the reality is both more complex and more simple. Anyone can be lonely. You don’t even need to be alone to be lonely and to experience the way it eats away at the human spirit.
We all know that many people were lonely during Covid lockdowns. We also know loneliness hasn’t gone away – so we thought it would be useful to explore it further and consider how you can minimise its impact on your staff and your business.
What is loneliness?
The Mental Health Foundation has a good definition:
‘Loneliness is not about the number of friends we have, the time we spend on our own or something that happens when we reach a certain age. Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want. That means it can be different for all of us.’
Most people will experience loneliness at some time in their life. Knowing what it feels like is part of the human condition. But being stuck with a seemingly endless lonely future? That’s a frightening and (very literally) a depressing prospect.
Loneliness is bad for business
Humans are sociable
Humans, like most other mammals, are social creatures. The rise of the nuclear family in the second half of the 20th century, and the rapid growth in single person households in the 21st tell us more about social and economic pressures than they do about choice – and both have contributed to loneliness.
Human sociability is why offices and other places of work have endured. A well-run business generates more than profit – it creates its own social buzz which enhances everything else about the organisation.
Loneliness causes harm
But when people become lonely, the opposite is true. The damage endured by the lonely individual not only affects them personally; it also affects their effectiveness at work and thus the effectiveness of any team to which they belong.
In the US, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to a 2020 report  by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Amongst other findings are the facts that
- “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”
Although this study focused on adults over 45 years old, it is more than likely that comparable health risks affect younger people who are lonely, especially when it’s for extended periods of time.
A similar study  published in February 2022 also had findings consistent with this picture.
The risks to individuals are clear enough. And if you have staff members with these risks, your business could be vulnerable too from the knock-on effects of staff absence or reduced performance.
Who is most likely to be lonely?
You don’t need to be alone to be lonely
And here is the catch. Loneliness can affect gregarious and busy people as much as it catches those who live an isolated life.
Consider a colleague who is single and sociable, but who is the main carer for an elderly and infirm parent. Out of the office, all their spare time is taken with these care responsibilities. It’s tiring and it pretty much destroys other social activities. They look forward to work, but are also tired before they arrive. It’s difficult to keep up when you’re exhausted, so more time is required to stay on top of things – thus there is little or no time to socialise at the water cooler or after work. It’s a vicious circle where the business suffers as well as the individual.
Similar scenarios are played out with other back stories: busy parents surrounded by people but no time to make or connect with friends, those recently (or long time) divorced and single, and those whose lives have been dislocated by the Covid pandemic.
Social Media can help, but it has risks
The permutations are many and various. Social media offers genuine ways to increase social contact, but it also holds up many false images of the perfect life. Those who know their own life is far from ideal often feel worse as a result.
The good news is that there is no need to give in to loneliness. Increasingly it is recognised as a social and mental health issue and it is one which every individual and every business can help tackle.
- Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
- Evaluation of Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Cardiovascular Disease Among Older Women in the US, Natalie M. Golaszewski, PhD; Andrea Z. LaCroix, PhD and others – JAMA Network Open.