Have you ever felt lonely? If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re one of the vast majority who experience this universal adaptive trait of human beings as a social species. In recent history, we’ve all experienced a deprivation of the usual quality and quantity of social interactions through COVID-19 lockdowns.
It was a refreshing balm to rebuild in-person social connections during face-to-face veterinary conferences and recent festive celebrations. However, we’re still collectively reeling from the impacts of loneliness, and we need to prioritise boosting connectedness to stave off harmful effects on our physical and mental health.
We need to prioritise boosting connectedness to stave off harmful effects on our physical and mental health
The healthy functioning of our workplaces and wider society requires prioritisation of social interactions to restock our social capital, which is central to workplace culture and personal well-being (Parsons and Weddle, 2022). In this two-part series, we’ll explore the impact of loneliness on individuals, teams and businesses, and discuss how to foster the antidote of togetherness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a loneliness pandemic, with surveys from multiple nations, including the UK, the US and Australia, highlighting increased loneliness following lockdowns.
According to the Office of National Statistics, loneliness in UK adults increased by nearly 50 percent as the COVID-19 lockdowns progressed (ONS, 2021). The British Red Cross reported one in five people identified as being often or always lonely before the COVID-19 crisis; now, 41 percent of UK adults report feeling lonelier (BRC, 2020). A survey of US citizens found that over 40 percent of Americans are lonely, which has raised the call of a “national loneliness epidemic” (Silard and Wright, 2020).
The term “loneliness epidemic” has been used by the Royal College of General Practitioners to describe a result of the pandemic in the UK. Even before the emergence of COVID-19, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018, following a study that found 9 million UK citizens are often or always lonely.
In our own profession, over 72 percent of respondents said they felt lonely in a recent survey in the Veterinary Voices UK Facebook community.
What is loneliness?
What exactly does it mean to be lonely? Loneliness is a subjective personal feeling relating to a lack of companionship. It is important to notice two key facts here:
- Firstly, loneliness is a feeling, and therefore by nature, it is personal and subjective. We cannot look at others – even those surrounded by loving friends and family – and assume they do or do not feel lonely
- Secondly, companionship is essential, meaning a mutuality of trust and respect when in each other’s company. It is about emotional support in a relationship in which you are truly seen and understood
We cannot look at others – even those surrounded by loving friends and family – and assume they do or do not feel lonely
|Loneliness is the experience of separation and/or invalidation|
Loneliness crosses the boundaries of age, gender, race, relationships and socioeconomic status
Loneliness is painful and, thus, difficult to tolerate
Loneliness motivates humans to seek meaning and connection
Loneliness most probably has an evolutionary basis for humans as a social species
The social separation and subsequent feeling of loneliness can be due to time, geography, not relating to those around you, feeling a lack of belonging or being misunderstood or ostracised. It may be due to a lack of quantity and/or quality of social interactions.
There may be periods of time when you are busy with caring responsibilities – putting others’ needs above your own – or studying or training which leaves less time to socialise. Moving to a new job or area requires investment to build relationships with new groups in the workplace and community, especially for new graduates.
Deeply personal experiences such as grief or illness may also result in periods of withdrawal or disconnection. Loneliness might be a feature of the working environment, with ambulatory work requiring long periods alone driving between jobs, or conversely spending all day in a consulting room with many brief superficial interactions, yet lacking the opportunity for deep connection.
A three-item UCLA loneliness scale was developed by Ingrid Abreu Scherer and has been used to measure loneliness in written and telephone surveys internationally. It is designed to measure relational connectedness, social connectedness and self-perceived isolation through three simple questions:
- How often do you feel that you lack companionship? (Lacking deep connection and understanding)
- How often do you feel left out? (Misunderstood, overlooked or ostracised)
- How often do you feel isolated from others? (Disconnected or separated)
Why should we address loneliness?
If we don’t address loneliness, we can enter a vicious cycle where feelings of isolation and disconnection can lead to social withdrawal and even hostile antisocial behaviours. This, in turn, drives further isolation.
Unchecked, prolonged loneliness can lead on to depression. Worryingly, it may also result in irrational and even harmful behaviours and business decisions, alcoholism, drug use and other damaging means of escape.
Loneliness is also a source of stress. It may be transient or persistent, resulting in short-term or chronic stress. And, as with all causes of stress, this can lead to harmful psychological and physical outcomes, including depression, impaired mental health, negative self-assessment, diminished intimacy and general or social psychological distress. Those who see themselves as socially isolated are also at an increased risk of developing lower cognitive ability, memory problems, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
On a business level, research has shown that lonely employees have lower productivity, more missed days at work, lower quality of work and, crucially, a higher risk of turnover. Conversely, employees who experience high levels of belonging have a reduced turnover risk, increased work performance, fewer sick days and increased employer promoter scores. All of this translates to an impressive estimated annual saving of $52 million for a 10,000-person company. In other words, fostering connections will pay handsome financial dividends in addition to being a powerful moral obligation.
Can we feel lonely in a crowded place?
As loneliness stems from social disengagement, we can absolutely experience profound and painful alienation even in a busy workplace. The demands of work can leave us precious little time for genuine fellowship, despite being surrounded by people. Staggered and separated lunch breaks, lone working in the consult room or car, and technology and social media that eat into relational time all impact our ability to develop connection and companionship in the workplace.
Feelings of alienation in the workplace can be the result of role conflict, unmet career expectations and a job’s lack of alignment with personal vision, values and purpose
Nowadays, feelings of alienation in the workplace can be the result of role conflict, unmet career expectations and a job’s lack of alignment with personal vision, values and purpose. This is in stark contrast to the sense of belonging highlighted in the 2019 British Veterinary Association’s Motivation, Satisfaction and Retention Survey as key to motivation and satisfaction in the veterinary workplace.
Put bluntly, if we want staff to stay, we need to help them feel they belong and combat loneliness.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the antidote to loneliness is togetherness; however, fostering connections is not always simple in practice. Firstly, it takes time and effort to make time and space in our lives, and we must make a conscious decision to dedicate resources to building and maintaining meaningful relationships. So, here are some hints and tips to consider.
Find your tribe
Is work where you socialise? If you said yes, is this because of a lack of time or energy to develop relationships outside of practice, or is it genuinely because you feel whole and socially satisfied with your colleagues? Do we need to invest more time with family and interest groups, keeping in touch with friends – whether local or distant?
Sometimes we need to form a tribe where those with common experiences or interests meet and share – in person or virtually – to provide support. If your ideal group doesn’t exist, sow the seed with a shout-out to your local or veterinary community about a passion or interest you’d like to share with others. You never know what connections will bloom.
Our four-legged friends (or animals of any pedal arrangement) can provide invaluable companionship, especially as we learn more about the emotional intelligence of humankind’s best friends.
Animals provide us with non-judgemental predictable companionship and emotional well-being to combat loneliness. They also provide a great conversation starter while out and about, whether you are at the stables or on walks, or have assistance dogs.
Diarise connection time
Connection is much more likely to happen if you are proactive and diarise time to meet or speak with people in advance. We’re all busy, so it can help to arrange a time to spend with a friend in advance. Over time, this approach can help us build healthy habits and integrate forms of self-care into our routines.
Do it for others
If we think about how we can help others experiencing loneliness, we can also benefit from the well-being buzz of doing something for someone else. Many elderly people with a wealth of experience and insight to share are living and dying in solitude. And the NHS has collated ways we can help to support the isolated elderly while reaping the benefits of doing a good turn (NHS, 2018).
Serving others is a powerful way to extract us from our own sense of loneliness and reignite the power of human connection
Serving others is a powerful way to extract us from our own sense of loneliness and reignite the power of human connection in our lived experience.
One of the most powerful things we can do to strengthen human connection in the workplace is to operate from a place of kindness, compassion and empathy. A positive culture with openness and acceptance is a strong foundation for fostering a sense of belonging.
Self-development and understanding may be a much-desired effect of participation in focus groups, coaching or therapy.
Mental health professionals can provide a new form of connection with someone who helps us marshal our feelings and functions. Therapy can help simply by talking about important issues with another human being. Another benefit is that the lonely individual can share strong painful emotions without censoring them or worrying about the effect on the relationship with the other person.
It’s thanks to evolution that human relationships – which were central to our survival as a social species – are vital for a healthy, happy life. Yet time for connection is being edged out in this modern world. The quality of our interactions is diluted by the nature and demands of our work and by the way technology is parasitising relationships and our sense of community.
The COVID-19 lockdowns were a stark reminder of how much we rely on the people we love and the value of our relationships with the members of our communities and workplaces
The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity: it has brought loneliness into the limelight and forced us into a greater shared experience. The COVID-19 lockdowns were a stark reminder of how much we rely on the people we love and the value of our relationships with the members of our communities and workplaces.
We’ve realised through this difficult time that we’re not the only ones struggling. When we recognise that everyone is struggling, we feel a sense of solidarity that we’re all in this together. What better solution is there than to seize the day and take this opportunity to prioritise developing deeper connections?
In part two of this mini-series, we will look at the specific challenges of loneliness in the workplace – especially for those in positions of leadership – and solutions both for individuals and for teams in veterinary practice and beyond.