Last year, I suffered from chronic back pain and experienced a sense of what it’s like to feel alone. Without my usual tos and fros of social interaction – sharing joys, challenges and laughter – I felt distanced from others. The less I could work and take part in my usual activities, the more I focused inwards and mulled over the aches and pains. 

I was very lucky to have family and friends to bring me to the surface when I felt down but, months in, I was concerned I had drained their sympathy and patience and felt alone in my pain. I’m acutely aware that some people suffer much more intensely and aren’t as fortunate to have others around them, but still it gave me an insight into how loneliness feels.

Loneliness isn’t an objective term as someone can be enveloped by people and still feel the gap whilst another may be surrounded by just a few and feel very enriched. In a great HBR Ideacast, Dr Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon General, describes it as the feeling that the connections we need in life are greater than the connections we’re experiencing now. 

Invisible threads are the strongest ties

Friedrich nietzsche

Even before the current Covid-19 pandemic, researchers warned that loneliness was a serious public health crisis. Dr Murthy states that loneliness affects more than 25% of the adult UK population and 20% of those in the US. Furthermore, a recent survey by the British Red Cross found that 2 in 5 adults have felt lonelier under the lockdown. People from BAME backgrounds, parents, young people, those with long-term health problems and people on low incomes were more likely to feel lonely.

How loneliness impacts our health 

Humans, by nature, are social mammals. Our prehistoric ancestors needed others to provide protection and support, not just for themselves but their offspring, and our brains are still wired to seek others. Loneliness puts us in a stress state and, when prolonged, can lead to greater levels of inflammation in the body, which can damage tissues and blood vessels. This may be why there’s a strong association between loneliness and the risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, dementia and shortening of life span. 

major meta-analysis in 2010 indicated that people with strong social bonds are 50 percent less likely to die over a given period of time than those who have fewer social connections. It found the influence of social relationships on mortality risk is comparable to well-known risks like drinking alcohol and smoking (it’s been suggested that loneliness has a similar effect on health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day) and exceeds the influence of risks like lack of physical exercise and obesity. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, sums it up by saying that good, warm and close relationships can “buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old”.

Good, warm and close relationships can ‘buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old’.

professor Robert Waldinger

Loneliness at work

People often assume that loneliness forms a blanket across all areas of life, but studies indicate it can be context-dependent; we can be lonely in our private life, family, romantic or work life. Professor Sigal Barsade at Wharton has specifically examined loneliness at work as this is an area where many people spend significant amounts of time and has, until recently, been under-researched. Her work suggests that organisations should take note as greater loneliness leads to lower work performance. 

One reason for this is that lonely people tend to become more self-focused, don’t listen as effectively and consequently appear less approachable to others. As a result, they don’t share things or get access to the resources they need. Becoming less approachable is not related to having lower social skills, but rather the adverse effects of loneliness. 

Managers can help by being alert to changes in employees’ behaviour. Regular communication, attentive listening and a focus on relationship building can help to prevent people from entering – or getting stuck in – a cycle where loneliness becomes an established sentiment. As more people move towards remote working arrangements, this outreach is even more relevant because there’s a risk that a greater reliance on technology could impact our relationships. 

Dr Murthy describes technology as a double-edge sword and that how we use it determines whether it helps us to connect or separates us. “It hurts us when we assume that video conferencing into a meeting is the same as turning up. There’s something very different and powerful being in person. We should recognise the trade-offs we’re making and find ways to compensate for these.”  He warns that if we continue to pursue a path of efficiency over the quality of relationships, over time this can lead to people burning out and feeling disengaged from colleagues and organisations.

To help address this, in future we may see workspaces being reimagined as places for gathering and collaboration, where employees can meet to connect and share. There’s likely to be a higher priority placed on creating social spaces, in addition to individual working areas. 

We may see workspace being reimagined as places for gathering and collaboration.

How to increase connections 

Strong relationships are undoubtedly critical to our health and wellbeing, but how can we make sure we prioritise them? If we think about social fitness in a similar way to physical fitness, then it makes sense that we need to regularly attend to, and nurture, our relationships in order to keep them strong and healthy. 

One way to do this is to map our social networks – across all areas of life – and reflect on the strength and direction of our relationships. Which ones need some attention to prevent them from fraying and what small steps could be taken to start building the connection? It’s helpful to think about the balance of support in these relationships – are there some that involve more taking than giving, or others that could be reinforced by asking for more help? 

Our own defences can create invisible barriers, whereby a fear of being vulnerable prevents us from fully connecting with others. Taking a risk by asking for support or sharing our thoughts and experiences (without necessarily having to pour our hearts out) can help to increase bonds and strengthen relationships. 

Connections are also built through small acts rather than grand gestures. One of the simplest, but often overlooked, ways of doing this is asking how someone is and granting them your full attention when they respond. Make the time count rather than being distracted by phones or internal chatter. As French philosopher Simone Weil said, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. Other acts could include buying a coffee for a colleague having a busy day or sending a quick voice note to a friend. It’s these small gestures of kindness that create the glue that holds people and organisations together. 

To address loneliness, it’s important to focus on connection and relationship-building, rather than just interaction. Large get-togethers can sometimes increase loneliness by intensifying feelings of being outside of the group. Loneliness makes us very sensitive to social rejection and social cues, so interacting with others should be more relational where we have an opportunity to get to know each other in a more authentic way. At work, this is an area where managers can facilitate by creating opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other on a more personal level.

To address loneliness, it’s important to focus on connection and relationship-building, rather than just interaction.

Tending to relationships takes work and is an ongoing process, but anybody can get lonely at any time. Having a strong support network is one of the greatest protective mechanisms for our physical and mental health, so being aware of our own connections and looking out for others who might be suffering, is therefore one of the greatest investments of our time.