Loneliness is something everyone experiences at some point in their life. However, for some people, prolonged periods of feeling lonely can negatively impact their mental health.
Pamela Qualter is Professor of Psychology for Education at The University of Manchester. She is one of the UK’s leading experts in the field of loneliness and studies it throughout life. Her current work is looking to better understand the links between loneliness and depression.
MQ: Transforming Mental Health, the UK’s leading mental health research charity, spoke to Pam earlier this year to find out more about her work and what employers can do to minimise loneliness in the workplace.
Pam, can I begin by asking you how common loneliness is?
Loneliness is incredibly common – though I have some issue with the idea that there is an ‘epidemic of loneliness’, which is something we hear about in the media. It suggests that there is something pathological about feeling lonely, something abnormal – and I don’t think there is.
My colleagues and I have looked at the prevalence of loneliness in different age groups. What we have found is something like a U-shaped curve across the lifespan – where loneliness peaks in adolescence, dips down in mid-life, and then peaks again in later life.
In adolescence, we’re trying to work out who we are, and which group we fit into – which can be a very isolating experience. However, in old age, the challenge to our relationships is that we’re losing people. Maybe we’re not able to get out to socialise as often as we were, or maybe we’re losing friends and partners to ill health.
Between these two peaks, in ‘middle age’, people generally score lower on measures of loneliness. However, there may be certain people who are prone to loneliness, such as carers, the unemployed, or new parents with their first child.
It’s really worth employers thinking about how they can support new parents with their transition back to work after what can be a tough and potentially alienating time for them.
You led the BBC Loneliness Experiment, the largest study on the topic ever conducted. What was the most interesting thing you found?
We carried out a survey with just under 55,000 people over the age of 16, to gather their opinions on loneliness and relationships. What I found most surprising was the stigma that people attach to themselves if they feel lonely.
People didn’t think badly of other lonely individuals at all. But people who scored high on loneliness felt very negatively about themselves, and so they would conceal it – they felt there was a real shame in telling other people.
Let me give you an example: not long after we released the results of the BBC Loneliness Experiment, I overheard a conversation on the train between two young men. They were talking about how they thought a friend of theirs was probably quite lonely – it was a very kind conversation, they obviously wanted to help. But they admitted that “there’s no way he’ll tell us”, so they didn’t feel they could reach out to him.
It’s fascinating - loneliness is such a universal experience that most of us feel at some point, and yet that doesn’t stop us feeling really ashamed when it happens to us. We need to get better at sharing our personal experiences of loneliness.
When does loneliness become a problem for our mental health?
Feeling lonely definitely impacts your wellbeing, without a doubt – it’s a horrible experience. But for mental health, the issue comes for individuals who don’t come out of loneliness – who remain lonely for months or years - and never establish the relationships they want, or don’t deal with their inner turmoil.
Most of the research around loneliness and mental illness has focussed on the link with depression. Some researchers have found links with suicidal thoughts and with anxiety, but more research is needed to pin that down.
What we know about loneliness and depression is that there seems to be a two-way relationship. We know that adolescents who feel very lonely may show more depressive symptoms – but also if you’re depressed to start with, feelings of loneliness are more likely to arise.
So, it’s not always the case that the loneliness comes first then the depressive symptoms come after, it could work the other way around. That means there’s not going to be a simple fix.
What’s currently being provided to tackle loneliness?
The UK Government is funding a lot of programmes around loneliness, but they’re mostly focussed on providing people with access to social groups – with the idea being that if you make a friendship, you’re not lonely anymore. I think this is too simplistic.
Although those kinds of groups will help some people, for the chronically lonely, they just aren’t going to work – they will still be very distrusting of any relationship they build.
I also think the kind of ‘meet new people’ interventions would work much better if people got together over a shared interest or hobby, rather than just being lumped together because they feel lonely!
What, if anything, could employers do to minimise loneliness in the workplace?
People might experience loneliness when joining a new place of work or when promoted to new posts: we all want to be liked and valued by others and we are conscious, at those times, to work out how to fit in with others.
As colleagues, we can make life easier for new people by introducing ourselves, being friendly, and helping them understand the rules and norms of the new situation/role.
When loneliness has been experienced for a long time, it is actually much harder to spot and will be harder for us to play a role as a colleague or employer.
Persistent loneliness can make us interact in ways that ‘turn off’ people, contributing to continued negative feelings and social experiences.
If you suspect your colleague is experiencing persistent loneliness, it might be worth approaching them about that and offering an ear to listen. But, remember that you might experience hostility from that person and they might not be ready for support; maybe you wait until they are ready to discuss.
Also, don’t expect changes overnight - persistent loneliness takes courage and commitment to overcome and may include the individual trying many things before things change. Be with them during that time, offering kindness and support when asked.
Finally, what do you hope for the future? What needs to happen next?
I really want us to be able to develop suitable interventions to combat chronic loneliness. I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet. But to do that, we need to properly understand how loneliness works, and we need better evidence on the link between loneliness and mental illness, beyond depression.
However, I can feel that the tone of the conversation around loneliness is changing.
If we can take that forward, through things like MQ’s Mental Health Science Meeting, and through continued research, we can keep that momentum going to help people manage their loneliness, and not be ashamed to talk about it.
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