As offices, restaurants, and theatres fill up again and the isolation of lockdowns start to fade into memory, this year’s Mental Health Awareness theme of loneliness might seem rather unusual. But the ache of loneliness many of us felt in the absence of social contact hasn’t necessarily disappeared (despite the big return to the office). Even before the pandemic 1 in 20 of us felt lonely at work and the Co-op and New Economics Foundation estimated the cost of loneliness to UK employers at £2.5 billion every year. On its own, loneliness is not considered a mental health problem but it is associated with higher rates of mental health difficulties and physical health problems - which means it is a fundamentally critical issue to shine a light on.
So if loneliness can be felt even when we are not alone - is that actually loneliness?
Many of us quite happily choose and, might even like, more time to spend alone! We can feel perfectly content in our own bubbles doing our favourite activities, working at our desks or just being in our homes without ever feeling isolated or alone. Loneliness isn’t about simply having others around - it’s that unwelcome feeling when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have and those that we want. You can be sitting on the sofa with your partner, eating dinner with your extended family or zooming with your large team of colleagues and still feel lonely. How often have you sat in a meeting with your team and felt completely unheard, listened to or excluded from the discussion? How often have we been with others that we couldn’t open up to and had to keep things locked inside? These are all examples of the day-to-day loneliness we can feel despite having the physical presence of others around.
And it is for this reason that the big return to the office may not be the solution many think it ought to be. For example:
We no longer feel like the same person who left the office, having gone through losses or other difficulties while working from home and through the pandemic
The people in our teams have changed and it doesn't feel like coming back to a familiar place with familiar faces
We joined a team or new organisation during the pandemic and have only ever known our colleagues inside the rectangle of a VC
Or quite simply - not feeling heard, acknowledged or validated by people around you at work was something that predated WFH
It’s also not something that is just experienced at work. People are also more likely to experience a sense of loneliness at times of transition such as:
Grief, bereavement and loss - such as someone’s death, losing a job, transitions in family roles and relationships, the loss of hopes or dreams
Moving to a new area
Planning a wedding
Being a single parent
Buying a home
Changing jobs or feeling isolated from colleagues
It’s also more likely to show up for those of us who are:
Living far away from family and friends
Estranged from family
A minority in our place of work and/or outside work
Experiencing discrimination because of our gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability for example
Experiencing or have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in the past
We know that experiencing mental health and emotional difficulties can also lead to intense feelings of loneliness. The shame we can sometimes feel in response to these experiences can make it feel difficult to reach out and talk to those around you. You might even worry about social situations and find it difficult to engage in everyday activities that can bring about a sense of connection with other people. And sadly vice versa - feeling lonely over a long period of time can also make it more likely that you begin to struggle with your mood, worries, self-esteem, and coping with stress.
The experience of loneliness itself
Each individual person is likely to experience loneliness in their own unique way, and it can be hard to put how it feels into words. It can often trigger other emotions such as feeling low in mood, anxious, stressed, affect our self-esteem or interfere with our sleep. However the common factor in all of these is that it is a feeling that makes us uncomfortable, it is unwanted and like any other unwelcome feeling, most of us will understandably do whatever we can to try to get rid of or avoid having this feeling.
The “comfort” behaviours many of us feel drawn to when we feel lonely such as drinking too much alcohol or overeating are unlikely to help change how lonely we feel and can actually be destructive. We wind up feeling bad about ourselves for how much we drank or ate- unconsciously created painful vicious cycles.
When we already feel lonely, it can start to take a toll on our sense of self and ability to speak to others so that even when the opportunity to socialise comes up again, it can feel overwhelming and become something we want to avoid. Or we may be tempted to fill up our diaries with activities and social engagements that don’t quite seem to resolve our loneliness.
Whichever of these or other unhelpful patterns we fall into in our efforts to avoid feeling lonely, doing things differently can feel stressful, even if they may help resolve those feelings of isolation.
How can I break the cycle of loneliness?
While there are clearly factors that make some of us more likely to feel lonely than others that are beyond our control, there are some small steps we can take to ease some of the intensity of loneliness recommended by the mental health charity, Mind:
Take it slow: No matter how long you’ve been feeling lonely for, try to start gently and gradually doing more things again. When we rush into trying to do everything at once it can feel overwhelming and lead to feelings of failure if we do not manage to achieve what we set out to do. Set small targets you can easily achieve.
Make new connections: consider joining a group or class that focuses on something you enjoy; you could ask to go along and just watch first if you're feeling nervous.
Try peer support: Find out more about peer support from Mind
Try to open up: You may find it hard to explain why you feel this way, but talking to a friend, family member, manager, health professional or counsellor may help. You could also contact Samaritans, call: 116 123 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you need someone to talk to
Talking therapies: Therapy can provide you space to process emotional difficulties that may be getting in the way of having meaningful and fulfilling social relationships.
Social care: Caring responsibilities or financial difficulties are some of the challenges that may contribute to loneliness that your local authority may be able to offer support around.
It’s natural but be cautious when comparing yourself with others: Focus on things you can change and what is under your control. We aren’t always present to all the facts when thinking about others!
Look after yourself: Try to make sure you’re getting the opportunity to get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, spend time outside and avoid drugs and alcohol.
And remember, you're alone – many people feel lonely at some point in their life and support is available.
A few ideas on how can managers support their teams?
The government led Tackling Loneliness Network discussions with the Employers Leadership Group generated five key ideas around how to address loneliness at work:
1. Culture and infrastructure: Loneliness awareness needs to be embedded as part of wider employee wellbeing and at an organisational level within policies. This can help prevent and alleviate loneliness as well as challenge the stigma of loneliness.
2. Managers as key points of contact and support: While it can be challenging to hold all of the various needs of and demands on your team in mind as well as your own, try to convey as a leader a sense of openness to discussing loneliness either on a 1:1 or group level. E.g:
Opening up conversations about loneliness with individual members of your team are more likely to be helpful if you can plan them a little bit in advance. For example, finding and protecting a time neither of you will be interrupted and a space that is private may help the individual to feel safe to share how they are feeling with you.