Isolation and loneliness are important themes that have taken on increased urgency in the face of a pandemic that requires self-isolation and social distancing measures to prevent the spread of disease. As individuals and businesses find their way forward, many do so in the context of a “different normal” that involves spending more time at home, working remotely and having far fewer face-to-face interactions. While many conversations have focused on strategies to alleviate loneliness, recent events have highlighted a critical fact: anyone can experience loneliness.

At a time when leaders across all sectors are trying to understand what factors are in play that can minimize the damage from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and support resilience, it is important that loneliness is not overlooked. In fact, loneliness is more than a state of mind — it’s a risk factor with far-reaching personal, economic and social implications. When isolation becomes long-term it can evolve into loneliness and the results can be potentially devastating. By understanding what contributes to loneliness, leaders can understand how to take action and more effectively prevent it moving forward.

What precipitates loneliness?

In uncertain times, loneliness becomes almost ubiquitous. In the past several months, individuals have been faced with the unexpected and sudden need to foster connections virtually, rather than physically. Communities, organizations and even families are disconnected. Research from the IBM Institute for Business Value has found that loneliness is almost always triggered by some form of loss, whether at a personal or societal level. While the original research looked at the aging population, we also explored how COVID-19 exacerbates loneliness and extends the issue across all age groups.

Today, individuals from all walks of life are grappling with different kinds of loss, and the study helps identify the factors that contribute to a growing sense of loneliness. Among older adults, the researchers identified six key individual initiators that often precipitate loneliness. These include declining physical and cognitive abilities, less interaction with family and friends, loss of professional identity, value in society, purpose in life and recognition in the market and media. It’s easier to understand why loneliness has become an urgent problem at scale in a time when many find their employment landscape shifting — from being furloughed to the loss of a job or the switch to remote working — being removed from family and friends, and unable to engage in the core activities of life.

The risk of loneliness affects a wide range of individuals

Recent studies have revealed that more Americans than usual have reported feeling lonely. IBM research showed that 45% of Americans indicate they had regular or almost constant interactions with individuals or large crowds daily, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. One study showed that prior to the pandemic, 61% of individuals in the United States reported feeling lonely sometimes. An April 2020 survey conducted by SocialSelf showed that loneliness is hitting younger demographics particularly hard: 27% of Gen Xers  and 34% of Millennials reported feeling lonelier as a result of the pandemic.

Across generations, there are many groups that are being affected by this sudden plunge into social distancing. In the United States, the study found that 18% of Americans live alone and 1 in 10 face even more solitary experiences, living without a pet. They may face ongoing isolation for months as many interactions have shifted to a virtual format. College students have been removed from their campuses and are now participating in remote learning. Research suggests that those living alone — regardless of age or gender — have a higher prevalence of common mental health disorders, and that this may largely be explained by loneliness.

When speaking of retirees, Kevin Mochrie, former head of communications at The Silver Line told researchers, “People forget just how much of their social network is actually dependent upon their job and their work colleagues.” As individuals find themselves furloughed or engaging with colleagues remotely, work-related loneliness can expand to touch individuals of all age groups. Understanding that the loss of social interaction across dimensions can impact loneliness, and that and its sharpness can be increased by a number of factors, can help shape discussions and guide the search for possible solutions.

Loneliness: A risk factor during COVID-19

A recent study found that addressing loneliness may have profound consequences for how individuals weather the COVID-19 pandemic. A study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that loneliness was the strongest predictor for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. While this is just one lens in a larger and emerging conversation, it suggests that individuals, communities, organizations and governments that want to mitigate the negative impacts should be aware that mental health outcomes are affected by loneliness. Kevin McGowan notes in a recent piece that the fourth wave of the pandemic may be dealing with the psychological impact of the pandemic, such as burnout or mental health challenges.

Yet loneliness is difficult to address effectively. There is a lack of standard diagnostic criteria and screening practices in place. It may also be difficult to identify loneliness, due to its simultaneous occurrence with other health and social conditions. Finally, the stigma of discussing loneliness may make individuals less comfortable discussing it or reaching out for support.

Effective solutions to loneliness: What we know

While there are many barriers to addressing loneliness and a lack of effective solutions, some programs and initiatives shine a spotlight on solutions that can help:

  • Create individual experiences that engage: Target individuals with solutions that support their individual experience and spark feelings of connectedness. One example of this is a project by University College London and IBM Watson. Students are creating an immersive social experience to help people living alone feel less isolated. The early version creates engaging 3D settings such as a beautiful park or a busy city street to provide a background for virtual interactions.
  • Invest in community-level solutions that foster connection: Community-level solutions to loneliness include actions such as encouraging intergenerational living, age-friendly environments and collaborative social platforms. VOICE (Valuing Our Experience) is a network of “innovation ready citizens” who use a mix of digital and physical interactions to help older individuals work to combat loneliness. For example, VOICE enables retired architects to contribute toward developing age-friendly spaces.
  • At the national level, studied solutions use existing infrastructure, such as postal systems or telephone landlines, to provide and facilitate interventions on a mass scale. The UK-based Call and Check system leveraged postal workers to assist individuals staying largely at home, by asking questions and assisting with key actions such as grocery deliveries and social distancing. During the pandemic, the program is leveraging the telephone for daily virtual visits and sharing the information with authorized caregivers.

As leaders, organizations and social agencies look for ways to provide the support needed to individuals in the days ahead, creatively identifying and preventing loneliness is a core concern. Emerging insights and intelligent technology platforms provide a wide range of solutions that can foster social connections in the age of physical distancing.

Learn more about the impact of loneliness on your organization

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