LGIU Associate Amanda Jones reflects on her personal experience of loneliness as a person in their twenties during the pandemic and outlines how employers can ensure their employees are supported and how individuals can best maintain their own wellbeing during this difficult time.
LGIU recognises that council employees and younger members of the whole workforce will potentially be feeling some of these pressures acutely and it is important we talk openly about these issues. Consequently, we have a briefing on mental health support coming out in January 2021.
Your twenties are supposed to be some of the most fun, exciting and carefree years of your life. For a lot of people, this is the sweet spot between being a skint student and tired working parent, when you have time to try new things, different places, meet an eclectic mix of people and generally have the space and freedom to stretch your mind and be young. Or so that’s what I thought.
Like almost everyone, my world has shrunk drastically over the last 9 months with workplaces closing and travel limited. Now, rather than having weekend adventures on mountains and navigating new workplaces, my days are spent on the sofa of our small dark, single-glazed living room, punctuated with the occasional slightly awkward video call.
Although not a totally uncomfortable feeling, the experience of being alone for long periods of time is relatively new for me having moved between my parent’s house and shared accommodation for the past seven years. Now, like many people my age, I have moved to a new neighbourhood where it might be difficult enough to meet people in ‘normal’ times, let alone during a global pandemic. My partner works in an inhumanely demanding job leaving at 7 am and often not returning until well after 8 pm, and so I often spend the vast majority of my time alone.
The summer months offered the chance of socialising outside, as winter is in full swing and the days become shorter opportunities for meeting up after work are limited even further. Speaking to friends I know that these feelings of loneliness, frustration and of feeling lost are not uncommon. From the intense sociability of school, college and university our network of connections suddenly dispersed as we each went our separate ways in search of work or further study. This sudden fragmentation of my social fabric was not something anyone warned me about and now, combined with home-working and travel restrictions it has, at times, left me feeling disconnected, isolated and adrift, with far too much time to dwell on insecurities and worries. I know that these feelings tend to ebb and flow through the week and month and most of the time I feel totally fine, but it can sometimes be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
While we often think of loneliness to be something that affects older people, recent research by University College London on living through the pandemic has found that young adults are most likely to be impacted by isolation. Additionally, the research found that compared to other age groups 18-30-year olds are the least likely to report feeling happy. Unfortunately, loneliness can often be interpreted as whinging or an adjustment period or blamed on too much time on electronic devices and is often stigmatised. This misinterpretation is dangerous as a persistent feeling of loneliness can have serious physical and mental health impacts.
Being 25 in 2020 would be scary enough but now, without social distraction, worries of all shapes and sizes are often blown out of proportion, how bad will the impacts of climate change get? Why don’t people care about what is happening to the world around them? With rising temperatures and sea levels, where would it be best to live? How will I ever afford a house anyway? Why is it necessary to own a house? Can I pay the rent next month? What am I going to do with my ‘career’? What even is a career? Was that email professional enough? Did I do okay in that meeting? Do I really need to put mascara on for the next Zoom call?
As a rivulet of water runs down the inside of my living room window I gather myself for an online meeting realising in the process that it’s 4 pm and these will be the first words I utter out loud all day. Perhaps, as a result, I find words difficult to come by in the meeting, and when I do attempt to articulate my thoughts it seems clumsy and nervous. When it finishes, with no one to distract me, I spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening reliving it, worrying about how I sounded, thinking about what I should have said and googling alternative careers.
As a naturally introverted person time alone helps to process and work but this crisis, and in particular the past month, has really taught me the value of human company, of seeing friends and colleagues as real people rather than words or faces on a screen. Now, I am starting to realise the importance of developing coping strategies if I am to get through the next few months as the happy, interested person I know I am.
With this in mind, I plan to finish this article with the eight things that have helped me cope with the ebb and flow of loneliness over the last few weeks. Before I do so, however, it is important to say that it is not the sole responsibility of the person experiencing isolation to ‘cope’ with this experience but to do so in partnership within a supportive community including their employer, university, family and friends.
When lockdown first began there was a wave of sympathy and support from employers and social networks, however now that life away from social contact has settled into a normalised routine, for many, discussions around mental health have faded into the background. The impact of this has significant consequences not just for the health and wellbeing of the individual but for their employer with estimates putting the annual cost of loneliness at over £32bn to the economy and over £2.5bn for employers. With this in mind, employers hold a powerful position and have the opportunity to raise awareness, tackle stigma and support people through an exceptionally challenging time. Listed below are a number of steps that employers could take to begin to address this issue:
– Appoint a staff member who will be responsible for the company’s loneliness strategy. This will help to raise awareness across departments and direct resources towards this issue.
– Providing access to talking therapies, which may otherwise be unaffordable for many employees.
– Reach out to colleagues who you may not work with day-to-day and review support provided to employees during key life transition points.
– Provide extra support and training on this issue to line managers alongside training opportunities on issues that improve relationships to all staff.
– Make sure that people have the space to have informal conversations with their colleagues during the working day.
– Build Mind’s “Five Ways to Wellbeing into your health and wellbeing programme, as this includes the elements “connect”, “take notice” and “give”, which all help to form connections.
– Create ways for your team to connect socially in small groups e.g. through an art or step challenge competition.
As I have said, if this issue is to be tackled sustainably then the burden of addressing loneliness and isolation should not fall solely on the shoulders of individuals. However, if possible, starting to articulate your feelings and developing coping strategies can be an important first step. Below are eight things that have helped me process and cope with loneliness over the last few weeks.
Be kind to yourself
Young people across the world are currently growing into adulthood (whatever that is) during what is an extremely uncertain and turbulent time meaning that on top of immediate worries like money and work, there are an increasing number of very real existential threats that are set to have devastating consequences to our planet. All of this is amplified by the fact many of us are spending most of our time alone and in front of computer screens. As a result, it is important to remember that it’s okay to sometimes feel overwhelmed and lost. While staying busy is very important, to be able to function effectively your mental health needs to come first. Rest is productive.
Talk about how you are feeling
This is a difficult subject to speak about for many young people. Surrounded by social media, we are a generation plagued by FOMO (fear of missing out), living via a world where our own lives and the lives of our friends are projected onto a platform for public scrutiny. We spend much of our time scrolling through a very social space and for this reason, feelings of loneliness and isolation often seem at odds with the image we might like to portray.
Despite this, making people aware of how you are feeling, however you choose to articulate it, is incredibly important. I think being in your early 20s might be one of the loneliest times in a person’s life so, whether it’s your friends, someone at work or a family member, utilising your support networks will help make this experience a whole lot easier.
Check in with friends and family
Maintaining social contact with people, even if it is done remotely, remains really important. Making the effort to contact friends and family helps to give some support and distraction. I have found that scheduling a regular catch up with friends has been really beneficial and helps to give me some perspective when I’ve been in my head for too long.
Plan things to look forward to
With very little separation between work and home, the days slowly to bleed together and time seems to have lost all meaning. With this in mind, it is important to plan things to look forward to. Although challenging as lockdown restrictions increase, even small things like a walk with a friend, film night with your partner/flatmate or cooking a nice meal with your family can help to add definition to the week and provide some motivation.
For me, staying active has always been an important part of maintaining positive mental health but it has really come into its own over the last seven months. Whether it’s a 10k run or a YouTube Pilates class, making time to get up and use my body has helped to keep me sane.
Food is such as social part of our lives and so making time to cook, bake and eat with other people, be it your flatmates, family, partner or even with friends over Zoom, helps to maintain some social normality during these strange and isolating times.
Take time away from your screens
As with many people, my life both at work and in my downtime seems to be spent staring at my laptop and phone. Ensuring that I take a break from my screens has helped to provide some perspective and distraction when it feels like my eyes might implode. Doing things like going for a walk or run, listening to a podcast, doing some art or cooking a nice meal are things that have all really helped give me the chance to take a step back and breath over the last few months.
When you’re feeling down try not to think about the big picture
The big picture can be inspiring and energising but it can also be overwhelming and scary. From fears about the state of the world to your own future, it’s easy to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of fear and worry. With this in mind, when I am feeling overwhelmed I’ve found it really helpful to just focus on one day/hour/minute at a time. Focusing on the moment by going for a run, speaking to a friend or even just quickly going to the shop can he helpful ways to bring you back to the present.
While I have written this article from the perspective of a young person, many of these experiences and strategies to address them will resonate with people of all ages. With Christmas fast approaching and as we all look tentatively towards a new year, it is more important than ever to look after not just ourselves but one another.
While writing this I am acutely aware that I inhabit an incredibly privileged space. I am a young, white woman living in the Global North, I have been lucky to find a job in my sector, I have a lot of supportive friends and I have a partner who is brilliant and patient. Given this position of privilege I felt a little hesitant about writing as I know there are people who aren’t as lucky as I am. With this in mind however, I don’t think I am in a unique position and so I write this in the hope that my experiences, alongside many others, will feed into the growing conversation around loneliness and feeling adrift during these difficult and uncertain time.