Written by Kathy Cox, PAM Occupational Health

What does loneliness mean to each of us?

Let me paint you a picture: Sam is a 42 year old female, she is a single mother of twin 18 year old boys. Six weeks ago she waved goodbye to them as they set off on their gap year to travel and volunteer at various conservation projects in Nepal. For the past 18 years, her focus has been on her boys, cooking, cleaning and ferrying them back and forward to various sporting events, which didn’t leave a lot of time for herself. Since the boys have left, the home is quiet, it is neat and tidy, but her car sits on the drive as Mum’s taxi is no longer needed. Cooking is harder when it is just for one person. She is an only child and her parents retired to live in Spain 2 years ago. Her weekends are long, there hasn’t been a time over the past 18 years for friends, and she is at a loss as to what to do. She feels adrift in her world.

She works remotely, going into the office once a week. On Monday she is in the office and whilst making the first coffee of the day, she listens to her colleagues excitedly tell of the things they got up to at the weekend, the family meals out, trips to the cinema, the drinks, the laughs with friends. She has nothing to contribute, so she silently slips away to her desk as she doesn’t feel a part of these conversations anymore. The pain of missing her boys is physical and her loneliness increases every day. She tries to concentrate on work, but these feelings of being adrift, of being lonely, of not knowing who she is anymore, are overwhelming. By the end of the working day, she is feeling tired and stressed as she knows she didn’t do her best work and that her attention to her work tasks is slipping, but she doesn’t know what to do. She is struggling to put into words how she is feeling, so how can she talk to her manager or HR? She doesn’t know what to do to help herself.

For many of us we can experience loneliness at certain times in our lives, but what is loneliness, and what does it mean to each of us?

Put simply, loneliness is a feeling of lack of connection or unwanted isolation. It can happen due to changes in living arrangements, divorce, moving location, bereavement, becoming a carer, poor health or mobility or financial issues. In surveys completed in 2018/19 and 2021/22, approximately 10% of adults reported feeling loneliness and this was found across all ages, though there was a high incidence in adults over 70.

For some of us, it can happen unexpectedly, we go through a divorce, or like Sam, the children leave home and all of a sudden the house that was filled with noise and chaos is quiet, tidy and we are alone, there is no one to cook meals for, no one to demand our time and attention. The children that have been our focus for the past 18 years no longer need us. Initially the peace and quiet can seem lovely, but quickly we start to experience feelings of loneliness and for some, it can become an overwhelming feeling. We have spent so many years being a partner, a wife, a husband, a parent that we have forgotten to spend time focusing on our individual needs.

It’s important to remember that being alone and feeling lonely are different. Being alone is the absence of others around us, whereas, loneliness in the UK is generally defined as a subjective and unwelcome feeling that results from a mismatch in the quality and quantity of social relationships we have and those that we desire. It could mean that we could be in a crowd of people and still be lonely, whereas some people chose solitude and are content.

What are the signs and symptoms of loneliness?

Symptoms of loneliness will vary from person to person and can be dependent on their individual circumstances. Loneliness can cause you to:

  • Feel insecure
  • Feel sad, empty, disconnected
  • Feel isolated or left out
  • Feel like you are not being heard, that you don’t matter

It can cause a decrease in energy levels, or impact sleep and in some cases, it can cause mental ill health. With Sam, she is feeling lonely and feels like she has nothing to add, so she becomes withdrawn and in doing so isolated herself further. Loneliness happens when we feel distressed when we are alone, while social isolation is the lack of regular interactions with other people.

How to prevent or cope with loneliness

There are a number of solutions, however, it is not a one-size fits all approach, each person has to find what works for them individually. Acknowledgement is the key. Acknowledging how we are feeling, the fact that we are feeling lonely. Feeling lonely can be overwhelming, but it should signal to each of us that we need to do something about it. For example, if we are thirsty, we know we need to have a drink. Likewise, with loneliness we need more social connections but how do we build social connections?

Volunteering has lots of benefits. Many employers now have a volunteering policy that allows colleagues time to participate in volunteering projects. Being involved in volunteering can bring meaning and purpose into our lives, keeping us mentally stimulated and allowing us to become part of something bigger than ourselves. By giving back to others we can increase our feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. It provides a sense of community, introduces us to new friends, or builds relationships with work colleagues involved in the same project, creating a common bond. As a volunteer we typically can interact with people from diverse backgrounds, allowing us to learn new perspectives.

The hands-on experience and training we get from volunteering can help build new skills, as well as develop ones we already have. It can open up new prospects and new careers that previously we would never have considered. Many of us use volunteering as a way to pursue hobbies, or forgotten past times, for example having a love of dogs might lead us to volunteer in a dog shelter, or a love of children to help out at a kids camp, or a love of being outdoors to help with a community garden project. It can stimulate our creative side, and motivate us, which in turn will impact our personal and even professional lives.

Make time for family and friends. It is very easy to let friendships drift, to get so caught up in life that we forget to stay in touch. If someone was a true friend, they would be delighted to get a text or a call, no matter how long it has been since we last spoke. Too often they have been caught up in life as well. So send that text, make that call, organise that coffee, or a visit. It is likely to put a very big smile on your friend’s face as well. If the family are living abroad then book a flight, go and see them. Make a cake and take a sliced round to an elderly neighbour and have a cup of tea with them. Not only will we make their day, but we benefit from the visit too by giving back to our community.

Get outdoors. Studies show that spending time outside in nature and in natural light can boost our mood and reduce stress levels. For those of us that work remotely, going for a walk after work can allow us to interact with other people as well as give the benefits of being outside in nature. Going for a walk and taking photographs is a great mindful activity. Most of us have mobile phones with cameras. Try doing the alphabet walk. Start with the letter A and take pictures of as many things as you can see that begin with the letter A, next walk letter B, then C and so on. Activity like this is calming and it increases our awareness of our surroundings and makes us aware of nature.