Mental health

Loneliness is much more than a state of mind

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Written by: Anne Nicholson, Brand Strategy Lead IBM A/NZ

Many people feel lonely from time to time, but sustained periods of loneliness or social isolation can negatively effect your physical, mental and social health. From a mental health perspective loneliness can sometimes lead to depression, feeling anxious, having panic attacks or feeling paranoid. Last year Lifeline Australia conducted a study that reported that more than 80 per cent of Australians believe our society is becoming a lonelier place.

Barriers include obstacles to taking action and lack of effective solutions

According to the Encyclopedia of Human Relationships, “the most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships.” While loneliness can effect anyone, our aging population can be more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. A recent study by the IBM Institute for Business Value and the IBM Accessibility team looked at how businesses and governments can address a looming crisis of loneliness in our aging population.

Invisiblity of healthy, active older adults in popular culture fuels a sense of isolation and loss of recognition


The report focuses on five important questions

• Why must organisations understand loneliness and aging?
• What precipitates loneliness?
• Why is loneliness so difficult to mitigate?
• How is loneliness in the aging population being alleviated today?
• What are guidelines for future solutions?

The hidden costs of loneliness represent a public health conundrum

Suggested actions

The report makes the following recommendations:

For solution providers:

  • “Evaluate the branding and positioning of your solutions; avoid aging stereotypes and be sensitive to the stigma that surrounds loneliness.
  • Build solutions that are flexible enough to address the different levels of technical fluency within the aging population.
  • Leverage the use of cognitive technologies that make it easier to personalise offerings based on an individual’s personal preferences; connect individuals to relevant content and interests.
  • Expand your partner ecosystem and network to include providers that older adults know and trust.

For business organisations, employers, and educational institutions:

  • Provide opportunities for flexible work to leverage the knowledge and expertise of the growing aging population.
  • Connect individuals to lifelong learning experiences and opportunities, enabling them to be intellectually engaged and to remain vital in the workplace as they age.
  • Establish volunteer opportunities that benefit both retirees/older adults and society as a whole. Learn what needs exist and target volunteer demographics to create mutually beneficial interactions.
  • Extend alumni outreach to allow individuals to maintain connections once they have left the organisation.

For government agencies, healthcare providers and advocacy groups:

  • Work together to incorporate loneliness criteria into routine medical screenings and social outreach programs.
  • Investigate the use of cognitive systems that could aggregate data, connect organisations and effectively match and manage individual social and medical needs to programs and resources within the community.
  • Address the need for more flexible retirement programs that encourage individuals to remain in the workforce.
  • Consider how existing network infrastructures (for example, postal systems, emergency responders) could be leveraged to identify and mitigate loneliness in the aging population.”

Not always isolation and age that can lead to loneliness

The Harvard Business Review recently conducted a five-year study on loneliness with the US Army. The good news is that they found the effects of loneliness are reversible. They developed a program of activities that focused on social resilience and social fitness.  Some of the goals included were to help soldiers to:

  • Improve their ability to develop and sustain positive relationships
  • Adapt to social challenges
  • Cope with feelings of stress and loneliness and grow from personal and social adversity

John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo, authors of the Harvard Business Review’s article, The Social Muscle report that “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: We are social creatures. We have a social muscle. The more we exercise it, the healthier we’ll all be.” It’s a fascinating article and also offers tips that can be applied to the workplace. Well worth a read.










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