Loneliness has been front of mind for much of this year.
13th to 17th June was Loneliness Awareness Week. Launched in 2017 by The Marmalade Trust, they are the only charity in the world dedicated to raising awareness around loneliness.
Back in May, we had Mental Health Awareness Week: an annual event designed to get people thinking about the importance of good mental health. It’s one of the biggest awareness weeks in the UK and globally. This year, the theme was loneliness.
“Loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our physical and mental health during the pandemic. That is why we have chosen it as our theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022.”
“Our connection to other people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health.”Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation
As we approach the holiday season, we find loneliness front of mind again. We know this can be a difficult time for many. With the pressure of last minute shopping trips and rapid fire social gatherings the least of some people’s problems.
Sky News reports “more than a half a million pensioners facing Christmas alone this year” with the cost of living crisis playing a significant part.
Data from YouGov suggests “Christmas this year will be less socially-driven than it has been previously.”
“A third of adults say they will cut back on gatherings such as meals with family, friends and colleagues (34%), or Christmas outings such as trips to see a pantomime or visiting a Christmas market (33%). A further 21% say they will reduce the amount of travelling they do to visit family and friends further afield over the festive period.”
Research from mental health charity Mind once suggested over a third of people (36%) are too embarrassed to admit they are lonely at Christmas. Whether that figure has risen or fallen in recent years is likely impossible to accurately capture.
Here, we’ve taken a snapshot of where we’re at as a society with loneliness. We’ve had a go at answering why we feel alone even when we’re surrounded by people. And we’ve brought in some practical advice from Sanctus Coaches on what we can do to work through feelings of loneliness.
Humans are physiologically wired for human connection. It’s in our very DNA.
Connection is critical to good mental health. It’s why over two years of lockdown and isolation has hit people so hard, in ways we are still processing.
Loneliness can make people feel stressed, depressed, anxious, isolated, and that they are unable to reconnect with others.
Like stress, loneliness invokes a hormonal response in the body: affecting the immune and cardiovascular systems.
Loneliness also weakens resilience, and can lead to destructive habits like self medicating, not observing a healthy diet and exercise schedule, and further self imposed isolation.
When we are lonely, our resilience also weakens. This means it’s easier for us to fall into less beneficial habits.
Staying at the pub later than you probably should. Having an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s for dinner. Not leaving the house for days on end.
We fall into these habits to feel better in the moment, but they can make us feel worse in the long run.
Loneliness hurts. But despite this, we know giving and receiving support from peers is one of the most direct and effective ways to overcome poor mental health linked to loneliness.
Unemployed people, full time students, and single parents typically experience higher levels of loneliness. And while loneliness is not an inevitable part of getting older, factors that contribute to loneliness increase with age. Things like the loss of a partner, mobility, or confidence issues.
There has never been a more important time to understand our relationship to loneliness, and how the absence of connection affects our wellbeing.
Loneliness is a key ingredient in a number of mental health issues. If not a direct cause itself, then it’s something that can make things worse. Especially if you don’t feel you have anyone to turn to for support.
What’s the difference between loneliness and being alone?
Being alone is the (often temporary) state of physically being by yourself.
Loneliness is the feeling that comes from either a prolonged or serious sense of disconnection. It often results from being alone longer than you’d like, or during a difficult time where a feeling of connection might be sorely missing.
“Loneliness is something I struggled with for years. I worked in a corporate environment where it was not OK to bring my whole self to work. As a result my work became my whole identity. And when I started to feel disconnected from my work, it had a massive impact on my life. I even moved into the world’s largest co-living space to escape my loneliness. I’ve never felt so alone than when I was surrounded with people that I had no real connection with, and as an introvert, being surrounded with people 24/7 is challenging for me. What was I thinking?!”
“It was only when I started to accept all the parts of myself that I began to cultivate that sense of belonging.”Kevin French, Sanctus Coach
Social isolation alone doesn’t always equal loneliness. Many people are perfectly happy – thriving, even – by themselves, including for extended periods. But we must recognise that these conditions may lead to feelings of loneliness.
Even though loneliness is a problem many face on their own, we can all play a part in reducing the impact of loneliness on our communities.
Baroness Barran became “Minister of Loneliness” in 2019 – simultaneously a positive step and a worrying sign – and last year warned we are still in a ‘critical stage’ of tackling loneliness after an extended period of on-off isolation, with many people lacking confidence re-engaging with the world.
Why do we feel lonely when we’re surrounded by people?
Loneliness isn’t about how many people are around you. It’s about how connected you feel.
Historically, we’d use the example of standing on a busy street or living in a bustling city and STILL feeling lonely, despite the abundance of people around. In 2022, that analogy requires an update.
Technology has given us plenty of tools and apps to stay connected with one another. This has largely been very empowering, but also problematic.
The impact of digital tools on our sense of community and connection is still up for debate: Johann Hari’s new book claims being plugged in all the time has stolen our focus and ability to pay attention.
In order to cultivate meaningful connection with others, we need to be able to focus on others – as well as ourselves.
There is also an element of technological elitism at play, in that certain tools may be more accessible to younger generations due to increased resources and digital literacy.
We need to find better ways to connect – for everyone.
By checking in on people, caring for others, and helping those who are more isolated, we CAN prevent a loneliness epidemic.
From our Sanctus Coaches
Sanctus Coaches work with hundreds of employees every day to understand their feelings of loneliness, reduce the negative effects of social isolation, and equip people with the tools to promote a healthy sense of connection in all areas of their lives – in and out of work.
Here are some of their perspectives on reestablishing a connection to yourself, others, and the world around you.
Talking to people you trust about what’s going on in your life is one of the most direct ways to reknit connection.
Try to go beyond a surface level conversation: opening up about our feelings and opinions – rather than simply relaying a timeline of events or a handful of impartial facts – is more personal, and as a result we feel closer to one another.
“If you are very guarded or protective of your heart, it can be hard to open up and let people in. For me, therapy and coaching helped me to open up more to the therapist, and as a consequence, I felt safer to open up to others, and ‘let them in’.”Dr. Albert Viljoen, Sanctus Coach
Doing things in a group is a great way to feel connected to others. Organising a walk on the weekend with friends and family, taking a language class, joining an online book club – there are options out there.
We all needed this at Sanctus recently, so (completely of their own accord!) the team organised a day of litter picking. It was a chance to spend time with colleagues outside work, and do something good in the world at the same time.
Connect with yourself
We may experience loneliness due to a poor or neglected connection with ourselves. A good relationship with yourself is important in making and maintaining a connection with others.
Journaling is a healthy way to work on this independently. Writing about your experiences gives you the space to pause, reflect, and better process the events in your life.
Disconnecting from the world
We’ve all had to rely on digital tools a lot more since the start of the pandemic. And while it’s been useful, many of us find ourselves exhausted being in front of a screen 24/7.
If you need to unplug every once in a while for the sake of your wellbeing, here are a few things you could try:
- Switching back to voice calls if you use video calls for work
- Send a text or a voice note if calling someone seems too much
- Joining an online club to keep up with hobbies and social outlets
- Writing a letter is a thoughtful (and often, extremely welcome) way to show someone you’re thinking of them
Sanctus coaches help people with processing feelings, introducing fresh perspectives, and recommending healthier approaches to implement in life and at work.
If loneliness is having a serious effect on your mental health, it’s something you should talk to a professional about.
You can talk about loneliness in a Sanctus session
Sanctus Coaches help you connect: to yourself, the people around you, your work and your personal life.
Connection is a core concept underpinning the Sanctus approach to coaching. It informs how we interact with our people, how we help employees thrive, and ultimately how we improve workplaces from the ground up.
We believe the value of our coaching depends on the quality of connection we have with the people we work with.
Sanctus Coaching is a safe, confidential space to help employees navigate life’s ups and downs.
- 1:1 personal coaching session with a fully qualified Sanctus Coach
- A safe, supportive space and empathetic ear to talk through worries and develop healthier approaches to navigate everyday challenges
- An opportunity for self-reflection, self-discovery and new perspectives which empower you to find greater calm and clarity
- Personal and professional guidance to help you thrive and be the best version of yourself – in and out of work
You are not alone.
Everyone experiences loneliness at some point in their life.
The causes and effects of it will differ from person to person, but what you’re going through is not the first time any human has felt the way you do – so it’s okay to feel how you do.
Loneliness isn’t something we should try to avoid. It’s inevitable.
Rather, we need to change our relationship to loneliness, and make use of the resources we have available to us in order to increase connection with ourselves and others.
As an individual, here are some resources you can use:
For Loneliness Awareness Week 2019, we spoke to Tessa Blencowe on The Sanctus Podcast about why we all feel lonely – even when you’re surrounded by people. Tessa is behind ‘London Is Lonely’: “an immersive art exhibition composed of photographs and audio stories of loneliness in London”. Listen to the full conversation here.
For anyone struggling, mental health charity Mind have put together a list of practical tips for managing loneliness, as well as where to go for support. You can also contact them directly on the phone and online.
The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has created A Brief Guide to Measuring Loneliness. While it’s aimed at charities and social enterprises, the questions featured would be useful for any business trying to get a grasp on how serious a problem loneliness is among their ranks.
As an employer, one of the most profound things you can do to limit the negative effects of loneliness on your people is to cultivate a sense of genuine belonging at work.
We recently published a Sanctus Big Read on reimagining the workplace of the future, one that puts employee experience at the very heart.