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Only the lonely

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

We're emerging or have emerged from lockdown. Some people are championing working from home. Personally, I was at home in a crisis trying to work—a significant difference.

It's got me thinking again about loneliness and social connection. Loneliness is a wellbeing indicator for both Treasury and the Government, and it's not surprising why that is. Loneliness is strongly associated with low mental health wellbeing, and low mental health wellbeing is strongly associated with overall poor life satisfaction. Holly Walker's work on loneliness gets to the heart of the matter: loneliness has a strong correlation with poverty.

A Treasury statistical model identifies the wellbeing indicators most strongly related to low wellbeing for mental health, and loneliness is the number one factor. Pretty startling.

So I question why for some people more isolation, at home and working will add to their wellbeing.

Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker on 23 March, quotes studies showing the health consequences of prolonged loneliness as the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness changes how our brains operate. Neuroscientist James Coan maintains our brains process information more efficiently with others around. They can be six feet away and our brains are more efficient. It's all about economy of action. Our brains want to do everything at the lowest possible cost. Being around others lowers the cost of almost everything they do.

Back again to Holly Walker. She argues the solution to loneliness is greater social connection, not necessarily with a huge number of people but meaningful, regular and ideally in-person contact. And for many, that's what workplaces provide.

So before we jump on the working at home bandwagon, let's look at the benefits of what people get out of social connection at work. Our lives and work/life balance and work/life integration is complex. Let's not jump at simple, short-term solutions. Poor mental health, triggered by loneliness is a real concern, particularly for the poor.


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