This week is mental health awareness week in the UK, with a focus on loneliness. Research shows that, while loneliness spiked during major national lockdowns, we’re still not back to pre-pandemic levels, and loneliness continues to affect disadvantaged groups disproportionately. We spoke to polymath, ad industry veteran and mental health first aid expert Adah Parris about equality and loneliness – and we checked in with some industry figures trying to make a change.
For mental health awareness week this year, the theme is loneliness.
Charities and think tanks have released a bevy of research that makes grim reading. While being out of work remains a determinant of loneliness, the news isn’t great for workers or employers. Mental Health UK reported that, on a typical working day, one in five of us feel lonely at work. That loneliness, they report, isn’t spread evenly through the workforce; young people (aged 18-24) are twice as likely to report being lonely than others.
Data from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) shows a trend toward pre-pandemic levels, but they’ve found demographic risk factors for loneliness, including being a carer, being from an ethnic minority community and being LGBTQ+. Those living with long-term health conditions are still seeing elevated loneliness levels since the start of the pandemic; “younger renters with little sense of trust or sense of belonging in their area” are an at-risk group.
Back in 2017, The Co-op and New Economics Foundation put the cost of loneliness at £2.5bn (about $3bn) a year. The latest Office of National Statistics data, backed up by the MHF this week, shows 7% of people feeling lonely often or always – about 3.7 million UK adults. It’s not hard to find even more frightening results.
Part of the solution
Five years ago, Vivek Murthy, former US surgeon general, pegged loneliness as the nation’s most prevalent health condition and work as “part of the problem.” What can employers and colleagues do to be part of the solution?
The first step is recognizing the ongoing loneliness epidemic and broader mental health pandemic, says Mental Health First Aid England’s (MHFA) chair Adah Parris. “We’ve been in survival mode – now we need to get into thriving.”
The absolute baseline for businesses, says Parris, is being able to recognize that “we all experience fluctuations in our mental wellness, and sometimes we need more support around that.” Responding to these fluctuations, whether in crisis or in smaller blips, always starts with one thing: creating environments in which having conversations about mental health is encouraged and destigmatized.
But we may be doing a worse job of this than in the early days of the pandemic. Citing MHFA’s own research, Parris says that “at the start of the pandemic, there was an increase in conversations around your mental health and wellbeing. But they’re starting to drop off.”
In some organizations, “the level of due care and attention and leaning in” has dropped off as hybrid working has become normalized, with fewer open routes of communication – especially for those younger employees who are at greater risk of isolation and loneliness. Worse, their research shows a major gap between “what CEOs and leadership believe is happening – they believe they’re doing really well – and people being actually supported.” As MHFA reported, 48% of employees had no wellbeing check-in in the last year – up from 25% in 2021.
With so many demographic risk factors, Parris says, deploying loneliness care will have to involve understanding and responding to those risk factors. She’s clear: “We see mental health as a social justice issue.” Loneliness will show up differently for those young people living in shared rental accommodation; in parents juggling work and childcare; in leaders facing the strain of paying salaries; and in people from marginalized groups who feel isolated by their difference or struggle to feel at home at work.
“Everybody suffers – from trauma, anxiety, all sorts of things,” says Parris. ”Some people are more marginalized. And there are different levels of power and oppression. Getting people to talk, getting people to recognize this – regardless of their position within an organization – is important.”
“Everything is connected,” she goes on. “We are individually multifaceted, multitalented; we have varying lived experiences. That’s what makes this industry potentially rich and beautiful.”
Fitter, happier, more productive
Step one, as they say, is recognizing the problem. As Waste Creative’s creative partner Mike Petricevic says, “a lot of business leaders see wellbeing as the ‘soft’ side of a business” but the research shows that “you can’t afford to underestimate loneliness. Or you can, if you don’t give a damn about other ‘fuzzy’ things such as productivity, retention or profitability.”
Lonely workers, he says, are less productive and engaged; they’re “five times as likely to miss work. And now with Covid 54% of remote workers feel that their relationships with colleagues are not meaningful.”
Flexibility to the needs of different groups is part of the solution; some agencies are taking more radical steps. Having identified physical activity as a key driver of mental health, creative boutique Seven Stones has built a gym at the center of its office. Its small staff of 20 has permanent access to the gym; they’re also encouraged to take walking meetings and use the board room as both a meeting space and a personal training studio.
No one would suggest that gyms at work can solve the problem of loneliness – but preventative measures along with responsive ones, according to Russell, can help ease the burden.
“We know that wellbeing at work is linked to a person’s physical and emotional energy states,” says managing director Dan Russell. “People need to feel like they have enough physical and emotional energy to meet the demands of their role. One thing often missing from the working day with implications for both these energy levels is physical activity.”
“Healthy minds are more creative,” Russell goes on. “Physical activity helps ideas to mingle more freely, which enriches creativity.”
This piece came about as a result of collaboration between Mental Health First Aid England and The Drum Network.