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Why loneliness poses the same health risk as smoking

04 January 2017

Why loneliness poses the same health risk as smoking

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When it comes to planning your annual wellbeing programme, addressing known health risks, such as smoking, poor diet and physical inactivity, is to be expected. What’s less known is that loneliness is a serious health risk that’s comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1

Not only does prolonged loneliness significantly increase the risk of developing depression and dementia2 but it also increases the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease3, reducing overall life expectancy by 7 years.4

To give your wellbeing programme a boost this year, why not educate and empower employees to make more social connections, both in and outside of work? To get you started, here’s our top 12 ways to address loneliness at work.

12 ways to address loneliness at work

With many people feeling socially isolated at work, whether due to home working, a recent promotion or increased use of email in place of direct conversation, there’s much that employers can do to address the issue. To get you started, here’s our top twelve ways to address loneliness at work:

1. Make employees aware of the problem

Loneliness is now a chronic problem across the UK, with more people living alone than ever before. Even though research shows that loneliness is worse for our health and life expectancy than other well-known risk factors, such as obesity and physical inactivity, most people simply aren’t aware how detrimental loneliness can be to our health. By making employees aware of the health risks, you can start the process of motivating them to do something about any feelings of loneliness.

2. Destigmatise loneliness

Employers have done much to destigmatise mental health issues, by creating an environment where employees feel safe to come forward to admit when they need help. Loneliness, however, remains a taboo subject that many people feel too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about. It’s important for them to know that humans are social creatures and have an almost primordial instinct to stay close to and connected to others. It’s natural and right for us to want to have social connections with others and to feel sad when these connections break down for whatever reason. It’s also worth explaining that you don’t have to live alone or be a ‘loner’ to be lonely. Research shows that lonely people are no less attractive, intelligent or popular.5 What characterises loneliness is a sense of isolation, of relationships not meeting social needs.

3. Get employees to act on early warning signs

For the most part, when our bodies alert us to a need, we act on it. When we experience thirst we get a drink, when we’re tired we sleep and when we’re hungry we eat. Many of us, however, have learned to live with the sad feelings of loneliness that are our bodies' way of trying to warn us that we need to be doing more to try to connect with others. By educating employees about the need to act on the feelings of low mood associated with loneliness, you can help them to take action before the prolonged state of stress associated with loneliness sets in. Even though humans no longer need to rely on each other for food, shelter, protection and help in raising young in the way the earliest humans did, we still have an in-built threat system that makes us feel distress if we drift too far away from the ‘safety’ of others.

4. Be aware of the self-destructive nature of loneliness

The more isolated someone becomes from others, the more threatened they will feel by the idea of interacting with others. The result is that much as they might want to make new connections, when faced with the opportunity to do just this, the stress hormone cortisol will flood their body, raise their heart-rate, shorten their breath and tighten their muscles as they enter into the classic ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response. Without support and practice to overcome this, they will inadvertently sabotage making new connections by ‘fleeing’ social interactions, ‘freezing’ up like a rabbit caught in head lights or ‘fighting’ others by becoming overly defensive or boisterous.

5. Be mindful of people going through big life changes

Prolonged loneliness can all too easily result after a big life change, such as starting a family, children flying the nest, a relationship break-up, bereavement or even a promotion that moves someone to a new location or distances them from their previous peer group. By keeping an eye on how well someone affected by these changes is sustaining social connections with others, managers have a valuable role to play in spotting people in need of extra emotional support and encouragement before an acute loneliness problem is allowed to develop into something more serious.

6. Connect people with appropriate support

Most of us will feel lonely at some point in the week, whether due to living alone, working from home, a long commute or shifting friendships. More often than not, all that’s required is some quality face-to-face contact with one or two valued people (rather than a raft of Facebook likes). If, however, feelings of loneliness have started to become acute, limiting the person’s ability to see themselves in a positive light and making them feel that no one likes them, or that they’re not worthy of friendships, they need to be encouraged to talk to the Employee Assistance Programme about the positive things they can do to improve their situation and how they feel about themselves.

7. Develop managers to support people struggling with loneliness

Employers like Unipart are developing managers to manage mental health as part of their overall people responsibilities. A key part of this is educating and supporting managers to hold empathetic conversations with people who are clearly struggling with an emotional issue that’s affecting them at work. The aim isn’t to counsel or advise the employee what to do, but use a clear process to encourage the employees to do something to improve their situation or direct them towards appropriate support, such as the Employee Assistance Helpline.

8. Create opportunities for people to connect at work

With research showing that wellbeing initiatives based on a mental health strategy generate 300% more Return on Investment (ROI) than those that aren’t, employers such as Oracle are embracing the opportunities this provides to encourage employees to get healthy together, for example by providing free fruit for employees to eat, not in isolation at their desk but with a colleague to also encourage proper breaks and social interaction. Home workers are also being provided with resilience training to help them understand the link between their actions and how they’re feeling, to encourage them to go out in their local communities at lunchtime and connect more with their partner or friends in the evenings.

9. Invest in your social capital

If your business doesn’t feel able to create opportunities for people to come together for the health benefits, be sure to also stress the business benefits. Well-connected employees are not only more engaged and more productive, but there’s increasing evidence that the social capital – the relationships and networks within a business – is vitally important to enabling it to overcome challenges and remain agile, in keeping with the need for constant innovation and change. Creating shared breakout areas and enabling people to come together for lunch can help reduce loneliness and build much needed cross-company relationships.

10. Work on everyone’s empathy skills

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is the bedrock of all relationships. In our busy lives, it’s all too easy to become self-absorbed in our own lives, disconnecting ourselves from others, when it’s our ability to show empathy for one another that brings us closer. Similarly, people trapped in the cycle of loneliness are often so preoccupied with negative feelings about themselves that they’ve forgotten how to show genuine interest in others. By helping employees develop empathy skills you can help everyone connect.

11. Help people returning to work rebuild social connections

If someone’s been out of work for a long time, with an illness or on maternity or paternity leave, the prospect of seeing colleagues again can become a daunting rather than a welcoming prospect. By trying to sustain some kind of social contact while they’re away, phasing their return and creating opportunities for them to interact with people socially as well as professionally, you can help to ease any feelings of anxiety they might have and enable them to fully integrate back into the team.

12. Encourage employees to connect with those in need

Research shows that mammals often turn to ‘tending and befriending’ behaviour when they feel stressed or isolated. Women in particular have been shown to become much more nurturing of their children after a stressful day, with this nurturing behaviour shown to reduce stress levels in much the same way that stroking a pet does. By encouraging employees to ‘tend and befriend’ people in need, you can not only improve your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) credentials, but also reduce and prevent loneliness by helping employees to regularly connect with others.

For more information on how you make addressing loneliness part of your wellbeing strategy, please contact your Validium customer relationship manager.

Sources

  1. Campaign for Loneliness: Threat to health, 2016 http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/threat-tohealth/
  2. Study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012)
  3. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al, 2016)
  4. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
  5. Lonely people can be surrounded by others (Cacioppo 2010)