On Loneliness: “The tale of two people, a pair of earphones and a lunchtime break”

On May the 2nd 2023, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek released an advisory statement as part of President Joe Biden’s administration’s efforts to address mental health. In that statement, he declared that loneliness was an epidemic affecting many Americans, where if left unchecked, leads to other medical issues, such as sleep problems, higher risks of stroke, dementia and other mental, physical and societal health conditions. Loneliness, however, is not just a US problem. In March 2023, the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), published the Tackling Loneliness annual report March 2023: the fourth year, which built on the 2018 strategy to tackle loneliness. In the policy paper it addressed how loneliness showed no bias as to who it could affect. After years of policy work, the department sort to “to raise awareness of loneliness and improve the support for lonely people in England.” (1) In doing so, the taskforce acknowledged three areas that needed to be addressed. The first was in ‘reducing stigma’ so that people feel comfortable to talk about loneliness. The second was on ‘driving a lasting shift’, which relates to advocacy work, policy-making and supporting organisations who are doing the work around tackling loneliness and building relationships. The third area, ‘playing our part in improving the evidence base on loneliness’, as the title suggests, is based on evidence, research and published papers, such as the department commissioning a study that looked at the factors associated with loneliness, to see who is at risk (2).

Loneliness Awareness Week falls between the 12th and 18th of June this year. There are many ways in which we can all be advocates in tackling loneliness and for the Marmalade Trust, a leading UK loneliness charity for all ages and the only charity in the world specifically dedicated to raising awareness of loneliness, one of things that we should remember, is that connection matters. Themed as such, they remind us, that it is connection that makes all of us human. So how might loneliness play out, in our interactions in the workplace? Do you have that colleague that reaches out to you and is thankful that you took the time out to check in on them? Or now that many of us are returning to hybrid working and can, perhaps go into the office albeit unwillingly, have the opportunity to connect with others face to face, where for some, remote working is still the only option? In these cases, ‘social connection’ often cited as being the cure to tackling loneliness, remains a virtual reality.

There is a difference then, between loneliness and being alone, and the two should not be confused. As Dr Vivek says, “I think the time you get concerned is when you start experiencing a feeling of loneliness for prolonged periods of time. If you feel lonely, you pick up the phone and call a friend, and then it goes away, or you get in the car and go see a family member, that’s OK. That’s loneliness acting like hunger or thirst, a signal our body sends us when we need something for survival. It’s when it persists that it becomes harmful.” (3)


The tale of two people, a pair of earphones and a lunchtime break


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(1) Tackling Loneliness annual report March 2023: the fourth year (2023) Department for Culture, Media & Sport. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/loneliness-annual-report-the-fourth-year/tackling-loneliness-annual-report-march-2023-the-fourth-year

(2) Investigating factors associated with loneliness in adults in England (2022) Department for Culture, Media & Sport. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/factors-associated-with-loneliness-in-adults-in-england/investigating-factors-associated-with-loneliness-in-adults-in-england

(3) Dillinger, K (2023) Surgeon general lays out framework to tackle loneliness and ‘mend the social fabric of our nation’. CNN Health online. Available at https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/02/health/murthy-loneliness-isolation/index.html