With the explosion of social media networks and chat applications such as WhatsApp, we live in a society where we are more connected than ever before. But in spite of all of this, loneliness and social isolation are still big problems in our society.
What are loneliness and social isolation?
Loneliness should not be confused with being alone. Some people are perfectly content when alone, and solitude is not necessarily linked to loneliness. Loneliness is a feeling of not having one’s social needs met, feeling isolated or feeling alone in a negative way. It is possible to be surrounded by people and have a lot of social interaction and yet feel still lonely, perhaps because these interactions are low in quality and/or do not lead to feelings of being understood or cared for.
Social isolation is a lack of social interaction, contact or communication with other people. Socially isolated people tend to have a lack of social networks such as family and friends, and they may not see or talk to other people very often. Social isolation can lead to loneliness.
The consequences of loneliness
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness and social isolation are harmful to health. Some studies have linked loneliness to health outcomes such as high blood pressure and obesity, and lonely individuals have also been found to be more prone to mental health problems such as depression and suicide.
Tips for combatting loneliness and social isolation
“Connection with others” is one of the five facets of wellbeing, and can help prevent loneliness or social isolation or help those who are experiencing these issues.
Some ideas for how to connect with others are outlined below.
- Take up a new hobby – join a class or group to share a new activity with others. This could be something active such as walking or running, or a class or group to learn a new craft or skill.
- Share your interests with others – this could mean telling friends about your hobby or joining a club or online forum.
- Volunteer – helping others can help you meet new people and as you contribute positively to society, this increases feelings of wellbeing.
- Open up to existing contacts – try to talk more to people you already know, either by talking about how you are feeling or simply by letting them into your personal world e.g. by telling them about your day. You can also try to open up to new people.
- Join an online community. Social networks can help you connect with others, and there will likely be a group of people online who share your interests and would be happy to connect with you. Some people find it easier to connect with others online than in person.
Loneliness, social isolation and work
Research shows that being in work is generally positive for a person’s wellbeing and health. Being in work can also help to combat loneliness and social isolation, although this does not mean that people who work do not feel lonely or socially isolated.
Although there are limits to what an employer can do to help an employee who they think may be lonely or socially isolated, employers can implement a general workplace wellbeing strategy (see the IOSH ‘Working well’ guidance) which should also help to prevent loneliness or social isolation. They can also provide opportunities for social interaction in the workplace, such as:
- providing a separate space for employees to eat or share breaks together;
- encouraging employees to work together/share ideas;
- encourage social interaction between employees outside of the workplace, perhaps by introducing social activities such as sports teams or staff parties.
Sickness absence, loneliness and social isolation
Being off work on long-term sickness can cause people to feel lonely or socially isolated. Fit for Work can support employees who have been off work for four weeks or more to return to work through an occupational health assessment, which takes into account non-work and work-related factors affecting a person’s return to work.
For advice on loneliness and social isolation in the workplace, as well as other work-related health issues, call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (or 0800 032 6233 for advice in Welsh) or visit the Advice Hub.
Employers can refer employees who have been off work for four weeks or more by going to fitforwork.org/employer and clicking ‘refer an employee’.
Those in Scotland can call 0800 019 2211 or visit fitforworkscotland.scot.