Mental Health Awareness Week explores the experience of loneliness, its effect on our mental health, how we can all play a part in reducing loneliness in our workplaces, families and communities, and the practical steps we can take to address it.
Mental Health Awareness Week runs from Monday 9 May until Sunday 15 May 2022 and theme this year is Tackling Loneliness. Loneliness affects millions of people in the UK every year and is a key driver of poor mental health. The Foundation’s Mental Health in the Pandemic research has been tracking loneliness levels in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic and found the experience has been much higher than previously and with devastating impact. It indicated that more of us experienced loneliness in the UK as the pandemic continued and by February 2021 this was over twice the pre-pandemic level at 26%. In addition, research by the British Red Cross showed that 41% of adults feel lonelier since the start of the initial lockdown.
Loneliness and mental health are closely linked, and we know that it has a negative impact on our health and wellbeing. That’s why this Mental Health Awareness Week Tackling Loneliness is the key focus. Loneliness has been an important factor contributing to higher levels of distress, resulting from people’s sense of isolation and reduced ability to connect with others. Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week and across the whole year, you can find resources provided by the Mental Health Foundation here.
The Effect of Loneliness
Many of us feel lonely from time to time and these short-term feelings shouldn’t harm our mental health. However, after 2 years of the COVID-19 pandemic, for some these feelings have become more deep-rooted. According to a survey of UK adults which took place nine months into COVID-19 restrictions (late November 2020) one in four (24%) adults in the UK said they had feelings of loneliness in the previous two weeks.
Long-term loneliness brings an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and increased stress. And having a mental health problem can make you more likely to feel lonely and that is why it is so important that we understand the effect and implement strategies to tackle loneliness. For example, stigma about your condition may make it hard to open up to others about it, or social anxiety may make it difficult to reach out to others. This may impact feelings about returning to work as more hybrid ways of working are becoming more normal.
The Importance of Social Connection
It’s easy to see how the pandemic has had a negative impact on our experience of loneliness, given that we have been forced to isolate, avoid the physical connection of meeting in person, and many of our community-based activities have been reduced or stopped completely. And yet, relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected.
However, It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.
This is also reflected in wider communities. For example, research has shown people in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion, independent of how deprived or affluent a neighbourhood is. Evidence also highlights that neighbourhood social cohesion was also associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms in older people.
Tackling Loneliness in the Workplace
Many employers will be starting to consider how to support Mental Health Awareness Week within their workplaces. Whilst consideration around mental and physical wellbeing should be an essential part of working life every week of the year, this Mental Health Awareness Week provides an opportunity for workplaces to focus on some of the current concerns around loneliness, understand the impact on their staff’s mental wellbeing and implement ideas to tackle loneliness in the workplace. Workplaces need to prioritise this as new research suggests that only 40% in the UK say they feel their company provides good support regarding their mental health and yet UK employees offered support by their employers are twice as likely to flourish.
Even before the pandemic hit, in 2017 the UK reported that 9 million people were lonely some or all of the time. Although now in 2022 the world is opening up, remote or hybrid working in many sectors has stayed and this has impacted on employees who feel isolated and experience loneliness at some point. There may also be employees who are concerned about their connections, rather than themselves-e.g loneliness in their family and friends network – who would benefit from a broader discussion on practical steps and support signposting.
How can Organisations Tackle Loneliness and Support their Employees?
- One way is to make sure you support your colleagues to have open conversations about mental wellbeing whether it be about struggling or learning how to thrive. At VISTA, we believe driving this culture throughout the organisation is vital, ensuring that there are regular and open communication channels is a good first step.
- Have a team check-in meeting, begin Mental Health Awareness Week May 2022, by asking each employee to come with suggestions for possible improvements to communication amongst their teams. You could introduce discussions around how the workplace could feel more inclusive and communicative, and how working practices could improve to enable a greater feeling of belonging and how to tackle loneliness.
- With many employees still relying on hybrid working, making sure that people both are, and feel, included on zoom calls is essential. This is especially important when some people are physically together and some are remote. During Mental Health Awareness Week, provide opportunities to raise awareness of signposting and support within your company, including your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and any wellbeing champions or Mental Health First Aiders.
- Promoting walking to work or commuting to work together. For example, encouraging travelling together or lunch time walks during During Mental Health Awareness Week (eg. walking and cycling) can improve health, reduce stress and increase a feeling of belonging in the workplace. All these simple steps can tackle loneliness during During Mental Health Awareness Week. Go See our VISTA “Walk to Work Blog”.
- Even if employee wellbeing is a priority for businesses, wellbeing programmes and benefits are often geared toward remedial care rather than preventative action. At VISTA we believe in building a proactive offering to help employees to thrive. We know stress plays a role in loneliness and social isolation. During Mental Health Awareness Week, encourage activities which can reduce stress. Check out our stress blog to learn about the impact of stress on a workforce including health and costs for the employer!
At VISTA we also believe that measuring both your workplace wellbeing and workplace culture in real-time is key to first understanding it, and then being able to base your people strategy around it. Our approach is advocated during Mental Health Awareness Week and across the whole year. Employers need to have a joined-up strategy that not only supports mental, physical, and social wellbeing, but also recognises that work environments underpin psychological safety. Therefore, ensure there is a focus on listening to employees, gathering data and evidence in order to get insight to achieve the best possible outcomes, both for employees and employers. Mental Health Awareness Week plays a huge across the whole year. This is a core topic area of every single business across the world.
VISTA offers a personalised wellbeing experience to every individual employee allowing organisations to see real-time wellbeing metrics of their workforce, helping drive proactive wellbeing strategies and for the first time no longer relying on purely reactive measures. If you’d like to learn how VISTA can support you please get in touch.