Emerging research has found chronic loneliness can have debilitating impacts on physical as well as mental health, and that workplaces have a strong role to play in increasing employee connectedness and the richness of social interactions.
Loneliness can be intense and severe due to a very distressing phase or event but can also be experienced less intensely as a persistent and enduring phenomenon, said clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Lim, a leading scientific expert on loneliness who is an adjunct research fellow at the Iverson Health Research Innovation Institute at Swinburne University of Technology.
And it is these enduring experiences of loneliness that exacerbate mortality risk and the morbidity of other disorders, Lim said.
“There is emerging data that’s just coming out about the impact of chronic loneliness because traditionally we don’t actually think of loneliness as something that is experienced over a period of time time,” Lim said, speaking on the AIA Future of Super podcast with host Julia Newbould, managing editor at Conexus Financial.
“There are groups of people who don’t experience high levels of loneliness but experience very long-term loneliness and that may be just as bad for you,” Lim said.
Nobody is immune from feeling lonely, Lim said, and it can take different forms among different groups in the community. Individuals are more vulnerable when going through a social transition, which can include exciting and positive transitions like starting a new job, having a baby, or moving to a new country.
Young people aged 18 to 25 can be particularly vulnerable during transitions such as high school to further study or work. So are older people but there are significant differences and challenges in the experience of people in different older aged groups, such as over 65, 70 to 75, 75 to 85, and onwards.
Lim is the scientific chair and chairperson of Ending Loneliness Together, a national network of organisations addressing the growing problem of chronic loneliness as an important social, health and economic problem.
Loneliness is a natural state, Lim said, and Ending Loneliness Together aims to eliminate the phenomenon of chronic loneliness, where people stay lonely longer because of factors that are often out of their control.
These can include larger systemic barriers such as living in a poorer neighbourhood, being unemployed, having a chronic health problem or being less mobile and unable to move around in the community.
Some people may have the internal and external resources to overcome these bouts of loneliness. Others may not, and the solutions to loneliness differ greatly between individuals, making it important that others do not trivialise the experience by telling people to “just go and join a group or make a new friend,” Lim said.
“Saying those things can be demeaning and disempowering to the person who feels lonely and who also have to face barriers which they have absolutely no control of,” she said. “So we really need to be very careful about how we talk about loneliness.”
People are also likely to conceal loneliness, believing it to be their fault, Lim said. But it is a normal human feeling that signals you need to “do something different about your relationships.”
Simonie Fox, head of shared value partnerships at AIA Australia, said there is already research showing loneliness is associated with a 26 per cent increase in premature death, a 29 per cent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 per cent increase in the risk of stroke. People struggling with loneliness are also 17 times more likely to make a suicide attempt, she said.
“Historically, we have thought about loneliness as being something that purely affects your mental health, which is incredibly important for us as a life insurer,” Fox said. “But in addition to that, of course that physical aspect on physical health has a huge impact with loneliness.”
Returning to a hybrid work environment after lockdown, AIA partnered with Professor Nicholas Epley at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business to run a workplace experiment where workplace interactions were organised through meeting up daily at a coffee cart.
The well-being of staff improved over time from the connection, as staff adjusted from worrying it might be uncomfortable talking to new people, to feeling more comfortable with these social interactions, Fox said. And introverts benefitted just as much as extroverts.
“Many Australians…have that social anxiety on the back of the pandemic,” Fox said. These experiments showed that “over time, it will be easier. It’s not going to be as awkward and as difficult as you might expect.”
“The call to action that [Epley] gave us as an organisation was to be brave with social interactions because they’re not as bad as we think,” Fox said.