The Silent Epidemic: How Loneliness is Affecting the UK Workforce

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inner-banner The Silent Epidemic: How Loneliness is Affecting the UK Workforce

Culture

April 26, 2024

Official records at ONS began tracking loneliness in the UK in 2018. Researchers estimated that a quarter of adults in England feel lonely, with 2.5 million people suffering from chronic loneliness. By 2021, this figure had risen to 3.3 million, including 1 million people aged 16-29.  In 2019, the British Red Cross found that 9 million people in the UK felt lonely, with 30% saying they had gone at least a month without having a meaningful conversation with anyone. Multiple studies have even suggested that the UK is one of the loneliest countries in Europe, specifically regarding young people. But loneliness is a complex topic, with the definition changing from person to person and country to country, so many studies report differing figures.

 

Loneliness & The Body

Being lonely can have a multitude of adverse effects on the human body, and some studies predict that loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Cardiovascular disease risks are increased with a meta-analysis of 23 studies involving over 180,000 participants finding that lonely individuals had a 29% higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke. Inflammation is another risk factor evidenced by a study of older adults, which found that those who reported feeling lonely had higher levels of marker inflammation than those who didn’t. Loneliness can weaken the immune system increasing susceptibility to infectious diseases. A group of college students were studied finding those who were lonely were associated with a weaker immune response to a flu vaccine.

All of this contributes toward early mortality. Scientists have found a correlation between loneliness and death, even when controlling other factors such as age, sex, and health status. A meta-analysis of 70 studies found that loneliness increased the risk of early mortality by 26%, supporting the conclusion that loneliness is the new smoking.

 

Loneliness & The Mind

And that’s just the physical impact; mentally, the impact of loneliness can be even greater. Both depression and anxiety are linked to increased loneliness by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Loneliness can;

  • increase the chances of substance abuse, especially among younger generations,
  • disturb sleep, including difficulties both falling asleep and waking up,
  • cause higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

All of which contribute toward higher suicide rates among the lonely. The relationship between suicide and loneliness is most potently encapsulated by this:

 


Both search engines immediately encourage human connection. Moreover, the Samaritans Charity in 2018 found that those who are at the affect of one or more of the following conditions are at a higher risk of suicide;

  • Live alone,
  • Are unmarried,
  • Widowed,
  • Have no children,
  • Are experiencing financial or relationship problems.


All of these factors are associated with increased levels of loneliness. Bearing in mind the majority of these studies and surveys were conducted pre-pandemic, the issue of loneliness is likely to have worsened. The impact of loneliness on the physical and mental health of human beings is clear, with many describing it as a silent epidemic. Professor Williams states:


‘Momentary loneliness is like being hungry right now. Chronic loneliness is like starvation, and it can have dire consequences…It’s what we mean when we hear about loneliness being an epidemic, because it’s driving outcomes that can ultimately lead to premature death.’

 

Loneliness: The Business Case

As a business leader, you may think the loneliness epidemic is outside your purview, but its negative impact on your employees can’t be ignored. Just look around the business world, Steven Bartlett recently hosted a dinner party with 20 strangers who listened to Diary of a CEO using conversation cards to try and spark meaningful connections in a bid to tackle this crisis. Carla Perissinotto supports the urgency of this crisis stating:


‘Loneliness and social isolation are more dangerous to our health than obesity and smoking. We need to start taking them seriously as a public health issue.’


For businesses, the loneliness epidemic is estimated by the British Red Cross and the Co-op that it was costing UK employers up to £2.5 billion per year due to factors such as decreased productivity, increased sick leave, and higher staff turnover. This was further supported by the BBC, which conducted ‘The Loneliness Experiment’, finding that over 40% of adults in the UK report feeling lonely sometimes or often. Those admitting loneliness also have lower job satisfaction and productivity. To guide business leaders’ future decision-making, the overall £2.5 billion annual cost to UK organisations will be broken down into the four key pathways that contributed towards the estimation. This way, organisations can understand where the greatest problems lie.

 

Health

As discussed above, the relationship between loneliness and an individual’s health is well-researched and proven irrefutably. Therefore, the relationship between sickness absences and loneliness should be discussed as this directly impacts UK employers. This element accounts for £20 million out of the £2.5 billion annual cost through illnesses such as depression, coronary heart diseases, and strokes.

 

Staff Retention

Loneliness can make employees feel disconnected from their colleagues and the wider organization, leading to a lack of engagement and decreased job satisfaction. This can ultimately result in increased turnover rates as employees may seek more fulfilling work environments where they feel more connected and valued. Researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science found that employees who feel lonely are likelier to quit their jobs, with loneliness being a stronger predictor of leaving than job satisfaction or workload. Regardless of how much someone values their work, if they feel isolated and disconnected from colleagues or just in their personal life, they are more likely to leave. This accounts for the largest proportion of costs sitting at £1.62 billion.

 

Associated Caring

This is one of the four key pathways which is often overlooked. The impact of loneliness on the health of those who are cared for by friends or relatives in work was examined using evidence based on the links between loneliness, depression, and dementia in coordination with the number and cost of working carers. Essentially, £220 million is paid by UK employers to support the caring activities of employees caring for people whose health conditions can be directly attributed to loneliness.

 

Employee Wellbeing

There is much evidence supporting loneliness’s adverse impact on wellbeing and mental health. The International Journal of Workplace Health Management in 2017 published a study that found loneliness and social isolation were associated with higher depression and anxiety among workers. By relying upon the relationship between loneliness and employee wellbeing, then employee wellbeing and productivity, an estimation of reduced productivity attributable to loneliness. Using data on the average output per employee, the cost was estimated to be £665 million.

 

If you are genuinely interested in tackling this problem within your organisation, take a look at Frome as a case study. A small English town implemented an innovative approach to social isolation. The town’s GP employs staff who reach out to lonely people in the area, there are talking cafes and talking benches where these NHS employees are available for a chat, and taxi drivers are even educated on services for vulnerable customers. From 2013 to when the initiative started in 2017, emergency hospital admissions fell by 14%, across the rest of the UK they rose by 29%. Obviously organisations couldn’t replicate this, but elements of it could be adapted to address loneliness at work. Click here for more ideas on how to tackle this.

 

Conclusion

Remember that loneliness is not just a personal issue – it’s a business issue too. Addressing your staff’s loneliness can improve staff retention, increase productivity, and ultimately boost your profits. As the great philosopher Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” So, let’s not forget that our employees are social creatures too, and by supporting their social connections, we can create a thriving, successful, and happy workplace.

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