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The Loneliness Epidemic

As our digital lives become important, our physical lives can suffer.

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We have more contact with others than ever before, but these are low-value interactions.

With the advent of social media and messaging apps, the number of people that we now interact with every day is incredible. The number of interactions that we have with each of them is also probably increasing as well.  

However, these interactions are generally pretty shallow, and they are getting shallower over time. When we would once have visited a friend, we phoned them instead. And when we would once have phoned them, we now visit their Instagram. Letters have been replaced with emails, which have been replaced with instant messages, often to a single emoji. The level of thought and effort in today’s communications is approaching a vanishing point, when the very things that really matter about how we communicate are the thought and effort that we put in.

Our bodies’ reaction to changes in how we work and socialise is directly causing loneliness.

This shift in communication behaviour is having a scientifically measurable impact on our mental health. A lack of face-to-face contact reduces production of oxytocin (bad). Lack of time spent in nature (i.e. green spaces) reduces production of serotonin (very bad). Low levels of serotonin are often linked to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Without face to face interaction and with less time spent outside (sound like anyone you know?) we are triggering physiological changes in our body and damage to our mental health. As our digital footprints deepen, these changes can spiral out of control, and it can be easy to slip into a feeling of loneliness and depression.

Our loneliness is compounded by the pressure to be productive in today’s society.

Average income in nearly all countries has steadily risen over the last decades – the world has been ‘wealthier’. This is generally a good thing, but it has had an interesting side effect: because we now earn more per hour than we used to, we also perceive our time to be more valuable than it used to be. This changes the equation our brain uses to make decisions on how we spend our time – it is more ‘expensive’ to spend time on non-work activities.  

The net result is an increase in ‘opportunity guilt’ that forces us to be ever more productive. The trending blog topics ‘You only need 4 hours sleep’, ‘Hustle, hustle, hustle’ etc. If you aren’t working 60 hours a week (eh? What are you doing with the other 108 hours?), you’re not working hard enough. This ‘busyness’ causes higher levels of stress and increased production of cortisol (very, very bad), and forces us to further shift towards quick, virtual communication in both our work and personal lives.

Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost all of your body’s processes, increasing your risk of many health issues, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression. This all adds up to a cocktail of mental and physical health problems.

Western capitalism and social media are two of the myriad root causes of this effect.

David McClelland built on Abraham Maslow’s earlywork in his 1961 book, "The Achieving Society." He identified three motivators that he believed we all have: a need for achievement (winning), a need for affiliation (belonging), and a need for power (influence). McClelland says that, regardless of our gender, culture, or age, we all have these three motivating drivers, and one of them will be our dominant motivating driver.

Whilst western capitalism has many positive effects, it is undeniable that it is breeding a society that promotes achievement over affiliation. With achievement being the dominant motivator for many in the western world, McClelland explains that this makes us more driven to work alone and in competition and over-rewards inter-personal power; promoting a society of competition and profit which some would argue isn’t a bad thing.

It’s clear to see why the loneliness epidemic is on the rise. It’s very common and easy for professionals in the Western world to work alone, using social media platforms as their only means of communication, allowing for all the negative impacts mentioned previously to build up. Let’s face it, if the only contact you have with your friends is viewing their latest social post about how amazing their lives are, then that’s not going to make you feel better.

Levels of loneliness are now reaching epidemic proportions, and costing billions, but there are steps that we can all take.

The issue of loneliness is largely neglected in the workplace and strongly suggests that it is in the interests of employers to use both reactive and preventative approaches to minimise the loneliness of their employees.

Jo Cox

Loneliness doesn’t just have a cost on our health – it’s costing our societies billions. In fact, in the UK alone, the loneliness epidemic is costing employers a massive £2.5billon a year. With approximately 30 million individuals employed in the UK, this is an average cost per employee of at least £82 per year. And it is in the workplace that we can most effectively combat the epidemic.

With the rise of platforms like Slack & internal IMs in the workplace, employers need to emphasise the importance of face to face conversations. These interpersonal interactions (about work, current affairs, life or whatever) all have scientifically proven, positive impacts on our health. We are all guilty of sending our colleagues an IM across the desk instead of actually talking: it needs to stop. Yes, IM has its benefits and I am not for one second doubting its contribution to business productivity, but we need to have meaningful conversations and interactions, face to face.

Outside of the workplace it comes down to us to motivate ourselves to do the same. Have meaningful interactions with our family and friends. Put away our devices when having conversations. Spend more time outside with those family and friends. Understand that our reliance on technology is increasing our feelings of loneliness and instead experience the Joy Of Missing Out.

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