Lonely this Christmas

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As harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s, coronary heart disease and stroke – loneliness can be a killer and it’s set to be a significant item on the healthcare agenda in 2019. For many individuals suffering, the festive season can be a particularly tough time – with a third of people (36%) being too embarrassed to admit they are lonely at Christmas.

Thanks to the campaigning started out by MP Jo Cox, who was murdered during the EU referendum, Tracey Crouch has now been appointed as Minister of Loneliness – to tackle the latest public healthcare challenge, that is said to be on a par with childhood obesity and mental health. So what role do employers have to play in tackling loneliness?

  1. Understand loneliness

As with many awareness campaigns, they can stem from challenging a misconception. In the case of loneliness, it is commonly believed that older people are most affected – as they are more likely to have experienced bereavement, be no longer working and have poor health; all of which can contribute to lessened human contact and increased chance of experiencing loneliness. But research finds that it is young people who are at greater risk, with 10% of those aged 16-24 saying they were “always or often lonely” – the highest proportion of any age group.

So the first step for employers is to actually gain a full understanding of what loneliness is and who it can affect. Indeed loneliness can affect anyone, but particularly those that don’t feel a sense of belonging or who have gone through recent fundamental changes. As a result, more vulnerable groups can typically include new parents, individuals that have changed job or town, and those recently bereaved. As loneliness can affect anyone, organisations such as Mind offer mental health training - helping staff and organisations to better understand different conditions, teaching them how to identify and support individuals going through difficult times. This could make the difference between someone experiencing loneliness getting help in the lead up to Christmas or continuing to suffer into the new year.

  1. Offer support

Employers may feel as though they are limited in what they can do to support individuals experiencing loneliness, but actually they can be best placed to provide help. Those that offer employee assistance programmes (EAPs), means that employees experiencing loneliness can discuss their issues confidentially with someone who can point them in the right direction for further support. As EAPs can be available 24/7, 365 days a year, it allows employees to access the service at a time that suits them – even over Christmas. Some EAPs can also come with mental health apps attached, which can make them more accessible and engaging – particularly for younger employees that have high expectations of quality technological support being as standard.

Private medical insurance and group protection can include counselling services, enabling employees to delve deeper into their concerns and find workable solutions. These can sometimes be included at no extra cost so it’s important that businesses fully familiarise themselves with what’s included in their employee benefits packages and ensure this is communicated to employees of all ages and circumstances.

  1. A business and moral imperative

Loneliness could be costing private sector employers up to £2.5 billion a year due to absence and productivity losses, so not only is tackling loneliness a moral imperative but a business one too. Taking time off to care for a loved one, receiving treatment for illnesses related to loneliness and not being as productive when struggling with loneliness can all mount up. Offering support to individuals and their families can make a significant difference in getting everyone back on track and feeling happier and more productive again.

Although Christmas can serve as a useful reminder that not everyone may be feeling positive and festive this season, it’s important that support for loneliness is provided throughout the year and communicated thoroughly. Having trained staff to identify concerns, and business initiatives in place to adequately support those going through a tough time can go a long way in tackling what is believed to be the next public health challenge to reach epidemic proportions.

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