Social Issues Spotlight: Loneliness and isolation

With self-isolation measures in place, people across the UK are paying particular attention to those who may be left isolated by the lockdown. There has been a surge in befriending activities with volunteers signing up through Mutual Aid Groups and NHS volunteering schemes, but loneliness doesn’t just exist in crises and it isn’t always caused by being alone. 

Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely. When we consider that loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29%, addressing this problem is vital to the wellbeing of the nation. So what do we need to understand about loneliness to help people feel connected both throughout the current crisis and beyond?


1. Disconnected communities are causing isolation. 

Last year almost four in five UK adults said they felt there was less of a sense of community in the UK than there was 20 years ago. Three quarters of people considered those living on the same street to be acquaintances at best. Local community creates a social network in the place where we live and in turn acts as a vital source of support and friendship, as we can see during the current crisis. However over the last 20 years local communities have been altered by the ways in which we work and the reduction of local services during a period of austerity. This had left some people without a sense of belonging and the small daily connections that stop them feeling alone.


2. Our perceptions of who is vulnerable to loneliness aren’t always correct.

When we think of loneliness we often think of older people. We are not wrong to do so as there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK. However, age is not the only factor; life events such as bereavement, leaving the workplace or becoming a carer can be contributors to loneliness. These life changes can happen to people of all ages and lead to a reduction in social networks. Single parents for example are more likely to face wellbeing issues; 30% (double that of coupled parents) report concerns with their mental health and 81% of carers, whose lives are altered by looking after someone else, report loneliness.

“Loneliness has many faces, many causes. It is a convoluted mental condition that secrets itself in bereavement, divorce, geographical isolation, shyness, the lack of opportunity or the inability to establish relationships or simple friendships. It has no regard for position or age.” Institute on Aging


3. Loneliness can come from a mismatch, not a lack, of interaction.

Often loneliness is interpreted as an absence of social communication but that’s not necessarily the case. According to mental health charity Mind, loneliness “is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met”. When people feel lonely within groups of people this is because ‘rewarding’ contact for that particular individual has not been found. To combat loneliness then we need to recognise that a one size fits all approach can’t work and take time to make sure people have the specific support and connections that they need.

“The dementia nurse used to come and visit every two weeks to help me understand what dementia was and see if I was alright, but the day my wife died, that stopped. You need someone to talk to who understands and has all the knowledge of what is available to help you.” Len, Independent Age


4. Certain groups in society face barriers to building connections caused by the perception of others.

People with disabilities and mental or physical health problems often experience loneliness because others feel that they do not know how to talk them. This is not a surprise when we see that 49% of non-disabled people in a survey said that they feel that they do not have anything in common with disabled people. This also applies to mental health problems, with many people who experience mental illness feeling that others do not want to communicate with them for fear of not understanding the issues they are facing.

“People hear the words “personality disorder” and presume the worst of the worst or don’t know how to react, this makes it extremely difficult for people like myself to open up” Erin, Time to Change Forum


5. Loneliness has a stigma and is often hidden.

Loneliness also has a stigma which makes it difficult for many people to seek connections and support. This is particularly prevalent in younger age categories. One in four young people in the UK say they feel lonely but 75% say that they wouldn’t tell anyone, despite having someone they could count on. This doesn’t just apply to younger generations; 92% of UK adults of all ages think that people are scared to admit that they are lonely. When people feel that loneliness has a stigma they hide it, making it particularly difficult for others, including charities and local authorities who can offer support, to identify them.

“You put on this mask that you always do so nobody can tell if there is something wrong.” Amber, Coop Foundation Research


What could businesses do to tackle loneliness and isolation?

As the current coronavirus crisis draws attention to loneliness and isolation, many businesses are looking at how to support employees, customers and society to feel connected, but these issues will not end when the current lock down does. Here are some ways in which you can create impact now and in the longer term.

For employees:

  • Create opportunities for staff to feel connected to their local communities. Charities such as the Eden Project help people organise community impact activities at a local level, and the Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together offers opportunities to engage with people on a local level. TSB are a great example of a business doing this well, supporting over 1300 local organisations and creating community connections for employees.
  • Give staff the skills and information to talk to each other about loneliness; resources such as the Samaritan’s Wellbeing in the Workplace digital tools, and Mind’s Tools and Tips for combating loneliness provide expert information.
  • Build internal networks and activities to make sure employees get rewarding social interaction within the workplace.

For customers:

  • Allow customer-facing employees to spend time connecting with lonely customers. Royal Mail did just that for 100 isolated customers in Liverpool.
  • If you have contact centres, make sure that staff are trained and empowered to communicate in a positive and rewarding way.

For communities and society:

  • Invest in creating places and spaces that enhance local communities. This could be across branches, stores or any other property assets. Charities like The Chatty Café Scheme for example work with businesses to utilise café space for conversations that reduce loneliness.
  • Bring your voice to a national campaign – the Campaign to End Loneliness run campaigns throughout the year including Be More Us. Getting employees involved in initiatives such as The Marmalade Trust’s Loneliness Awareness Week can also change the conversation internally.
  • Create a flagship social impact programme focused on loneliness with activities to support customers, employees and people in communities. A great example of this is the Coop who have been working to combat loneliness in partnership with the Red Cross since 2015. As part of this scheme internal bereavement networks were created to support at risk staff.


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