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Why wellbeing strategy needs to factor in loneliness

“The impact of loneliness on work and the workplace can be significant. Loneliness can increase burnout, reducing commitment, productivity and morale, and increasing rates of absenteeism and employee turnover”

Loneliness seems to be disproportionately affecting the younger generation during the cost of living crisis, due to their unique risk factor profile; income representing a more significant predictor of loneliness for 16-34 year olds than at any other life stage, even the over 65s. And considering loneliness is linked to numerous physical and mental health problems– including coronary heart disease, depression and a weakened immune system – this arguably brings implications for wellbeing strategy. Specifically, the need to shift away from viewing wellbeing in a siloed way and, instead, considering all pillars as intrinsically linked; physical, mental, social and financial.

This article investigates some of the impacts of the cost of living on the wellbeing of young adults and looks at opportunities for employers to help tackle loneliness through a holistic – whole person – approach to wellbeing strategy.

First though, why is loneliness an issue for employers? It used to be the case that such aspects of life were considered a matter for the individual only. This was the traditional notion that people brought mental health, or loneliness, with them to work. But times – and psychology – have changed and it’s now increasingly understood that work is an influencing factor or determinant.

And, vice versa. The impact of loneliness on work and the workplace can be significant. Loneliness can increase burnout, reducing commitment, productivity and morale, and increasing rates of absenteeism and employee turnover.

Right now, due to the growing impact of the cost of living, young adults seem to be having a tougher time with loneliness than most.

At this point, it’s perhaps important to define loneliness. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact.

You can be around others but still feel lonely, in terms of not feeling heard, not feeling safe to speak up, feeling that your talents are not being leveraged or valued.

Loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation (a lack of social connections), but one can lead to the other in some people. Also, both loneliness and social isolation are very different from solitude. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness and social isolation aren’t.

Why are young people more at risk?
A government investigation into factors associated with loneliness in adults in England found that amongst the 16-34 age group, people in the lowest income quintile had 1.7 times higher odds of chronic loneliness (defined as ‘often or always feeling lonely’) than those in the highest quintile. Income was a more significant predictor of chronic loneliness than at any other life stage.

Risk factors at other life stages were more associated with relationship status (never married or been in a civil partnership, or widowed, separated or divorced), having a long-term disability or illness, and also not being in work.

As a side note, the same investigation found that wellbeing measures are important predictors of chronic loneliness – and vice versa – even when controlling for age, sex and ethnicity; another strong case for considering wellbeing strategy in a joined-up, whole-person, way.

Meanwhile, back to loneliness and income as a risk factor and, while everyone is feeling the pinch and pressure, whatever their age, inflation is certainly not felt equally. The gap between the UK’s wealthiest and poorest households is widening significantly during this crisis, leaving lower income households (sub £20,000) more likely to feel that quality of life is declining, according to the latest Legal & General Rebuilding Britain Index. But that feeling of a reduced quality of life doesn’t necessary equate to loneliness per se at all ages.

Financial strain, social activities and disconnections
Against this backdrop, it seems a unique combination of circumstances is having an isolating effect on some younger adults.

Legal & General Group Protection’s latest Wellbeing at Work Barometer found that the top stressor for 18-34 year olds is ‘My finances/cost of living’, according to almost three quarters (70%) of respondents.*

This comes in stark contrast to the previous year’s Barometer results, where only a quarter (25%) of 18-34 year olds said ‘My finances’ represented a top stressor.**

The decrease in disposable income not only makes it harder to make ends meet but can lead to pressure on social activities and reduce opportunities to connect with others.

A survey by Ipsos found that, due to the rising cost of living: 45% of young people (18-24 year olds) have taken on more hours since January 2022, in comparison to 31% in the overall population; 30% of 18-24s have borrowed more money (versus 14% overall); or had to move back in with families (23% versus 6%); and 45% say they have socialised less, though this is similar to the 43% that say this overall.

A feeling of social disconnection also seems to be felt more keenly by the younger generation, according to research by Fruitful Insights, a data and analytics business that has partnered with Legal & General Group Protection to help clients (with 100+ employees) quantify the impact of wellbeing on workforce productivity. The data indicates that Gen Z’s (born in the mid-1990s and later) and Millennials (born from 1981 to the mid-1990s) are less able to depend on friends and family, with Gen Z’s indicating they are feeling 17% more disconnected from their local community than they did before the pandemic.

So, how can HR / employers help?

  • Design wellbeing strategy in a way that’s hardwired to your discrete business and workforce needs. Be careful not to get too side-tracked by what competitors are doing (i.e. industry benchmarking data and media headlines). Wellbeing is very subjective. Accordingly, wellbeing strategy should look different for every organisation. Tools like Fruitful Insights, or others that specifically factor in employee voice, not just employer opinion on what’s best for the workforce, can help with this. Crucially, such tools need to make concrete links between wellbeing and productivity.
  • Ensure joined up wellbeing thinking. This involves considering the pillars of wellbeing in an integrated way, with mental health as the foundation for everything and ‘good work’ fully factored in, as part of a robust person-centred framework. Get help from relevant and existing third-party suppliers with this too – for example, group income protection providers should be able to help with such a framework as part of their prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation support.
  • Use technology to help break down barriers to wellbeing. Extend essential mental health and wellbeing support to more people, by helping employees to access the support they need in a way that works for them. Tech enabled services might include Virtual GP, Employee Assistance Programmes and other wellbeing services (digital gyms, mental health eLearning, nutritional wellbeing pathways, self-guided mindfulness and meditation etc), also carer support services, and apps to help people manage long-term conditions etc.
  • Focus on creating a psychologically safe work environment. Work with internal communications and learning and development colleagues to help coach line managers to help create an environment of psychological safety (trust), encouraging employees to have a voice, to feel that they belong and are safe to express their opinions, ideas and suggestions. Central to this is reframing failure as a source of valuable data and a feature of learning. Coaching involves creating growth mindsets, by; demonstrably valuing learning and perseverance; fostering alternative viewpoints through better listening, asking good questions, demonstrating humility and acknowledging gaps; considering managers as resources for learning via feedback, coaching, debates that argue both sides etc.
  • Reinstate / reinvigorate employee volunteering. Volunteering seems to have decreased over the years, according to data. The share of the population who participate in voluntary activities at least once a year sat at 55% for 2021/22, in comparison to 70% in 2013/14. Providing time off for younger employees to do this could be beneficial. Research finds that the least likely to volunteer were 25-34 year olds, with a direct correlation between the time the age groups have to spare; those that don’t work are more likely to volunteer regularly.

*Legal & General Group Protection, Wellbeing at Work Barometer 2022 (1,005 senior managers or above in business with over 10 employees / and 1,040 middle managers or below in business with over 10 employees. Field dates, 1 June 2022 – 11 June 2022)

**Legal & General Group Protection, Wellbeing at Work Barometer 2021 (1,011 senior managers in business with over 10 employees / and 1,055 middle managers or below in business with over 10 employees. Field dates, 13-20 May 2021 (SME) and 13 – 26 Aug (midsized)

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