Human beings are innately social creatures, and our day-to-day interactions have a crucial role to play in reinforcing our sense of well-being and belonging in a community1. With the current circuit breaker measures in place, these connections have been put on the backburner as a response to the spread of the virus in our communities. Loneliness is likely to become more prevalent than ever now, but even in more ‘normal’ times, the impact of loneliness and isolation cannot be understated. Studies have labeled it as the silent killer, with it being twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity2.
But what does it actually mean to be lonely? It is important to stress that it does not simply mean living or spending time alone. Rather, it is more so a subjective experience of social isolation, when we feel that we do not fit in or belong with the people around us3. In such scenarios, social interactions lose the meaningfulness that they are meant to encompass. The prolonged deprivation of purposeful connections can then lead to significant negative effects on our physical and mental health.
At Cigna, we firmly believe in the idea of ‘Whole Person Health’, whereby our physical, mental and social health are inherently interconnected, and everyone from employers to healthcare professionals are responsible in doing their part to maintain this. In fact, one of our recent studies found that people who are less lonely are more likely to be in good overall physical and mental health as they tend to have achieved balance in daily activities and have good relationships with their coworkers4. It seems undeniable that the lack of meaningful human connections ultimately lead to a disconnect between mind and body . In this sense, addressing loneliness effectively will require us to reframe the conversation to speak to the importance of our mental-physical connection. To do so, let us start with what truly causes loneliness.
Causes of loneliness
There are many causes of loneliness, with many of them being linked to the workplace. One major cause is the lack of social support and infrequent social interactions. When an individual has insufficient meaningful interactions and no one to turn to when in need, there is a tendency for them to feel lonely and isolated. This issue is further exacerbated due to the circuit breaker measures. With most of us telecommuting and being socially distant, a huge chunk of our daily face-to-face interactions are rendered non-existent. For individuals whose bulk of meaningful interactions are with friends and colleagues, this becomes an especially big issue - so much so that 20% of workers surveyed stated that the biggest struggle with telecommuting is loneliness6.
Another cause of loneliness focuses on the quality of our relationships. Negative feelings like anger and jealousy in our personal relationships can also result in loneliness. When such feelings render relationships meaningless and even toxic, they no longer provide the fulfilment that they are meant to, and cannot be considered as meaningful.
The final major cause of loneliness concerns the lack of balance in major daily activities, such as sleep, work and exercise. All three activities contribute greatly to our ability to maintain healthy social interactions and without this balance, that ability is greatly diminished. For instance, if an individual is overworked and overcome by stress, they have less time for social interactions and are more likely to be isolated and lonely. Similarly, sleep deprivation can cause us to be less inclined to participate in social interactions due to fatigue. This risks becoming a self-perpetuating vicious cycle, with others perceiving us as socially-disinterested individuals, further worsening the social-isolation impact of sleep loss7. Like everything else, balance is key in humans being able to maintain healthy social interactions and with too much or too little time spent on these daily activities, this balance is disrupted, leading to less social interactions and therefore loneliness.
Direct effects of loneliness
As we mentioned, loneliness brings with it a whole host of negative effects to our mental and physical health. These effects are intricately linked and more often than not, are direct causes of another effect.
In most individuals, an inability to connect with others on a personal level leads to overwhelming feelings of isolation. As we are social creatures, isolation can result in self-doubt and negative feelings of our own self-worth, especially if we blame ourselves for causing this isolation. These feelings can ultimately lead to mental exhaustion, burnout and chronic stress.
Higher levels of stress results in higher cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that the body produces when we are under stress8, and higher cortisol levels lead to various conditions in the body, including inflammation, excess weight gain and insulin resistance. These conditions, if left unchecked over a long period of time, have been medically linked to more serious medical and emotional problems, such as depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even higher rates of morality. In fact, a 2015 study found that lonely people have a 26% increased likelihood of early death9.
Finally, mental exhaustion and burnout also lead to reduced cognitive skills, which further worsens our ability to have meaningful social interactions and further exacerbates this vicious cycle of loneliness. Over time, this takes a toll on our brain, with a study concluding that people who experience feelings of loneliness are at a 40% chance higher risk of developing dementia in their later years10.
Indirect effects of loneliness
The direct negative effects that loneliness can have on our mental and physical health are indisputable, but they also bring along with them an array of indirect effects that affect the people around us, such as our employers and colleagues. Absenteeism, for instance, would become a much bigger problem. Specifically, our research shows that lonely employees are 5 times more likely to miss work due to the mental health issues caused by feelings of loneliness and isolatio11.
Lower productivity and quality of work are some other issues faced by lonely employees, since they are more likely to be absent. Even when they are present, it can be harder for them to stay engaged and focus on their work. Our research reinforces this, with only 45% of lonely employees stating that they are more productive than their colleagues, and 12% of them feeling that their own work is not up to standard12.
Last but not least, employers of lonely workers face a higher risk of turnover, as lonely workers think twice as often about quitting their job13. This is especially relevant if they have no meaningful working relationships, contributing to a general sense of social exclusion as they feel that they do not fit in.
Ways to address loneliness
Despite the severe negative effects that loneliness can have on an individual, the ways to address it are actually not as daunting as we might think. A good starting point is to tap into our family connections. After all, family tends to be our closest source of human contact and interaction. Organising simple activities such as cooking, watching movies or crafting together can allow for meaningful family bonding to help combat loneliness.
Of course, we understand that not everyone has the option of connecting with their families, especially for those who are not staying together. In this scenario, reaching out to friends is another viable alternative. Even if you are unable to meet in person because of the circuit breaker measures, online activities can still provide the same healthy, meaningful interactions. Something simple such as video chats with friends, gaming sessions or even coordinated viewing sessions can do the trick. As long as these interactions give you fulfilment, they can help you feel less lonely.
Loneliness as a result of telecommuting can also be addressed by varying your work schedule. Instead of solely working from home alone, schedule online meetings and group collaborations with your colleagues from time to time to break up the monotony of solo work. Such collaborations can even turn into serendipitous interactions with your colleagues that add meaningful connections to otherwise uneventful days. This prevents us from falling into routines that could eventually lead to boredom, a lack of motivation and loneliness.
Another common method to address loneliness is to head outside and exercise. Exercise and sunlight have been known to help increase endorphins and serotonin levels in our brains. These are hormones that are linked with well-being and happiness, which will help improve our mood and combat feelings of isolation. Similarly, leaving the house will break up the monotony and routine that we can fall into when we are stuck at home, thus preventing boredom and loneliness.
Beyond exercising, volunteering is also a great way to help maintain a positive mindset to combat loneliness. Volunteering can bring a great amount of fulfilment as through making positive contributions to another person’s life. It also allows for positive social interactions with fellow volunteers and the people being helped.
Online communities are another option for individuals who have specific interests and hobbies, but cannot find someone to share these interests with physically. Nowadays, these communities are extremely prevalent and it is easy for anyone to join up and interact with other like-minded individuals from all over the world. This can be also extremely helpful in light of the social distancing measures as these communities can provide another source of healthy interaction for individuals, as well as an invaluable sense of belonging.
For more serious cases of chronic loneliness, it is vital to seek help from healthcare professionals as soon as possible. There are many therapists and doctors that have the expertise to properly advise and guide us through these issues. They can also serve as a pillar of support and the source of meaningful interaction needed to help us get back on our feet.
While we can take steps to address loneliness, let us not forget that there is still an inherent link between loneliness and the workplace. In this time of uncertainty, workplace mental health must be a priority for employers. At Cigna, we believe that employers are in a unique position to be a critical part of the solution. Whether it is ensuring that your employees have work-life balance, or encouraging them to spend time with their families as well as staying active, you can make a huge difference. If anything, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it demonstrates the ability of many organisations to adapt quickly to the physical and mental health needs of its workforce. This is a positive step in the battle against loneliness, but naturally, more can be done. At Cigna, we’re with you at every step of the way, including this fight against loneliness. Take a look at some of the programmes that we have in place that can help address loneliness:
Together, we can make a positive difference in the lives and well-being of the people that we care for.
1. Saner, E. (2020). Feeling lonely? Why a good night’s sleep might be the ultimate cure. The Guardian.
2. Cigna. (2019). Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Loneliness.
3. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality.
4. Being Patient. (2018). Loneliness Increases Risk of Dementia by Up to 40% — But What Does It Mean to Feel Lonely?.
5. Cigna (2020). Loneliness and the Workplace.
6. Cigna (2020). Loneliness and the Workplace.
7. Cigna (2020). Loneliness and the Workplace.