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Combatting loneliness: Tips from our Thrive series with Ruth Cooper-Dickson
The latest event from Mental Wealth consultancy, Champs, was hosted again by Ruth Cooper-Dickson in the atrium at Fora Spitalfields. Some of us have returned to the office, reconnecting with colleagues, while others continue to work from home. For many this transition may highlight a sense of loneliness that has built up during lockdown. In recent months our Champs series has looked at the many aspects of leadership and today the discussion focused on how to identify loneliness triggers and how to take effective steps to address the issue.
Ruth began by outlining the growing focus on the subject of loneliness, both in a work context and within wider society. There is even a government Minister for Loneliness, building on the ground-breaking work of Jo Cox MP and named in tribute to her following her tragic death. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reports that over nine million adults in the UK describe themselves as often or always lonely – a situation that affects all age groups. The Commission also described how weak social connections can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
There is a business cost too with loneliness estimated to cost the UK economy £32bn a year. It’s worth emphasising that this figure pre-dates the lockdown during which reported levels of loneliness have increased significantly. But this is a situation we can all make a positive contribution to. In the Commission’s report, 81% of people agreed that there are lots of actions everyone can take in their daily lives to help those feeling lonely. That includes business leaders dedicated to promoting Wellness and over the last few weeks Ruth has explored the different aspects of authentic leadership, emphasising the need to create space for open and honest conversations.
When addressing the issue of loneliness during the lockdown it’s important to recognise that loneliness is not simply physical isolation. You can have the world at your fingertips but you can still feel isolated. Ruth quoted her friend Dr Radha who regularly addresses wellness issues on Radio 1, highlighting the key aspects of loneliness to bear in mind:
- 1- Being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing
- 2- Loneliness is related to the lack of meaningful connection
- 3- Loneliness is not about the relationship you have with others, it’s the relationship you have with yourself
- 4- You are not the only one who feels lonely – We have all been there
- 5- Feeling lonely has a purpose. It can help us seek out new connections.
Loneliness can affect colleagues at any time, but the lockdown has been particularly challenging for many. The ‘happy’ hormones we rely on – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins – may have been disrupted by a lack of social interaction, of time spent in nature, or of simple human contact. Instead, stress hormones such as adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenaline can adversely affect our sense of wellbeing. We are hard-wired to want to connect and be around others and many have been prevented from doing so for an extended period.
Ruth discussed some of the measures that we can take, or encourage colleagues to take, in order to combat a sense of isolation. These can include getting lots of exercise, eating healthily, spending time outdoors, learning new skills or practicing expressive writing. Keeping a journal of your thoughts can be highly effective. She also emphasised the need to remove any sense of guilt and to reach out for support if necessary. Within the work environment, this starts with realising that a short daily conversation can have a very positive impact.
Throughout the series of Champs events at Fora, Ruth has emphasised the need to create space for open and honest conversations. This is particularly important now, when the lockdown has denied many of us the personal and professional contact we need to thrive. She encouraged her Fora audience to reach out, both to ask for help and to offer support. And we can all take steps to improve our sense of wellbeing.