Key takeaways for businesses looking to respond to loneliness and isolation

Last week we brought together three charity experts for an online conversation on loneliness and isolation – you can view the discussion here. This note captures the key, practical takeaways for those in businesses looking to respond to this important issue amongst their employees, customers and in communities.

While the crisis has put these issues higher up the national agenda, they were a real and growing problem long before COVID-19, affecting millions of people in the UK. To understand more about what the latest research tells us about loneliness and isolation – see our Spotlight on Social Issues from April.

 

For employees…

  • Isolation is a state (i.e. being cut-off) whereas loneliness is a feeling – while the two often come together they are not the same (Nikki, Age UK Camden). People experience loneliness and isolation in very different ways, meaning there is no one size fits all solution for either identifying or responding to it. It can also be harder to spot warning signs and understand any barriers people are facing when working remotely, as we are used to picking up a lot through body language and informal office interactions.
  • Therefore, what matters most is high quality communication between managers and individuals. In many cases, the lockdown has led to “better conversations focused on people not performance” (Verity, Leonard Cheshire) – we need to keep and build on this as the crisis eases. Resources such as the Samaritan’s Wellbeing in the Workplace Online Learning, and Mind’s Tools and Tips For Combating Loneliness are available to equip staff with what they need to spot the signs and have these conversations. Promoting initiatives such as The Marmalade Trust’s Loneliness Awareness Week (15-19th June) can also change the conversation internally.
  • Sensitive handling of return to work policies is going to be really important. There is a very real risk that new barriers are created between those champing at the bit to return to the office and others who are very anxious about it. If it takes two months to form a new habit, then any return to work needs to happen slowly and carefully.
  • Lack of respite breaks is “one of the biggest barriers to carers participating in society” (Ruby, Carers UK) and something millions of employees will have experienced directly during the lockdown when taking on full-time care for their children or loved ones. This week is Carers Week (8-14 June) and a good moment to reflect on how to give employees time and space to recharge after lockdown.

 

For customers…

  • Most of us have experienced some degree of isolation or loneliness in lockdown – right now, we are able to empathise with those customers who are housebound or isolated more than ever before. We all need to remember what it feels like and use this to drive changes that will serve these customers better.
  • “Don’t ever think that your contact or your phone call with a customer means nothing” (Nikki, Age UK Camden). While an interaction may be one of hundreds for a member of staff, it could be the only interaction of the day for a lonely or isolated customer and have a major impact on the course of their day. It is important to allow customer-facing staff the freedom and space to connect with those who may be lonely or isolated – just like Royal Mail did on a small scale in Liverpool. Simple measures like Aviva training their office receptionists in sign language can also go a long way to making sure everyone feels welcome.
  • The key is that customers feel included and are able to participate – whether face-to-face or online. There are many barriers to this – lack of equipment, poor digital skills, and lack of familiarity with jargon. The lockdown has actually removed some barriers that have previously prevented customers who find it difficult to leave the house from accessing products, services and culture. For example, training courses, fitness classes and musicals which usually require in person attendance and payment, have been made freely available in an unprecedented way. The challenge to businesses now is how to not just close these doors again as the crisis eases.

 

In communities…

  • Responding to loneliness and isolation effectively depends on quality of interactions and reciprocal benefit, not physical proximity to other people. Any initiative to bring people together – whether for communities or employees – needs to be “a two-way thing, not a transaction from one to another” (Nikki, Age UK Camden). Age UK Camden have had particular success with an intergenerational befriending scheme in London. Matches are made based on common interests (e.g. cooking, music) and both feel they are benefiting, with younger people’s energy and fresh ideas combining with the experience and wisdom from those who are older.
  • No one wants to sign up to a “loneliness” or “isolation” programme, as there is a societal stigma with 80% if people saying they would be judged negatively for feeling lonely (Campaign To End Loneliness, 2019). It’s about building on existing relationships and networks – putting measures in place in normal times rather than scrambling once a crisis like this hits. Businesses can play a role by creating places and spaces that enhance local communities, whether in branches, stores or any other property assets. A great example is the collaboration between Costa and The Chatty Café Schemewhich uses café space for conversations that reduce loneliness.
  • Working from home all over the country, people are feeling more connected to their local communities than they have in decades. For some carers, COVID-19 has actually led to them being better connected to friends, family and neighbours as people have taken more time to look out for others. There is a now big opportunity for companies to create opportunities for staff to deepen these local connections, benefiting their own wellbeing in the process. If you are seeking inspiration, charities such as the Eden Project and the Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together help people to organise community activities and engage on a local level.