Girl looking out of window



Social isolation and how our ability to connect has changed

10 December 2021

The reopening of offices, bars, restaurants, gyms, and shopping centres has given us all the chance to reconnect socially with people we may not have seen in a long time. While this is an exciting, long-awaited stage in our lives following the pandemic restrictions, it can also be overwhelming for some. 

We have been socially isolating for some time and reconnecting with others and society in general may take some readjustment. It’s important is to be patient and avoid putting undue pressure on ourselves to jump straight back into the life we had pre-lockdown – patience and practice are key.

Over the past year and a half, we have spent a significantly greater amount of time at home, with long spells on our own. Humans gain so much from being around other people, which is why it has been extremely difficult not being able to touch or hug those we love, or even shake hands when greeting others for the first time. It’s no surprise that many of us struggled with loneliness and the challenges of social isolation during lockdown. For many employees who were remote working, this meant 40 hours or more a week working alone.

Loneliness refers to the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact an individual has. Social isolation, on the other hand, refers to a lack of social contact which can lead to loneliness; however, many people can feel lonely without necessarily being socially isolated. So loneliness is not just about being social but more about how we feel about being social and how we feel about being connected with others.

The recent Allianz Partner’s and Wrkit ‘Working From Home (WFH) Survey’ gathered feedback from participants who were WFH across many countries and cultures during the pandemic. This has allowed for a deeper understanding of the challenges and benefits employees faced while WFH, but especially the impact on employees living away from their home country. The survey revealed that participants were feeling more isolated while working away from home during the pandemic. 

For people of all ages, social connection is vital for growth, happiness and development. Social connectedness is the experience of feeling close to and appreciated by others. Social connections influence our long-term health in ways similar to adequate sleep, a good diet, and exercise. Much like a plant’s basic biological requirement of needing water to grow, we require the basic emotional and psychological need of relatedness to flourish. Researchers have found that there are a wide range of benefits that stem from regularly connecting with others, and particularly to others we care about.

For example, it has been established that social connectedness helps improve quality of life, relieve harmful levels of stress and boost mental health. Caring for and being cared for by others is a powerful health tonic and humans have always been pack animals, and this is just as important today as it was back when we were hunter and gatherers.

It has been suggested that little gestures like offers of advice and expressions of care, in addition to showing affection, understanding, empathy and listening, cultivate strong social connectedness between individuals and within teams. This is encouraging news because such gestures are free and easy to execute with practise.

When we don’t get the connection we need, we’re often sadder, more prone to illness, less motivated and can become more withdrawn. Lack of connection is more common than people realise, as social isolation can affect nearly every aspect of mental health in some way. Research shows that feelings of isolation can be linked to:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Less restful sleep
  • Decreased ability to regulate appetite
  • Increased stress
  • Attention difficulties

It’s important to be aware of and monitor these warning signs,  as they often highlight feelings of loneliness or isolation. It is also important to reach out to someone we trust and let them know if we are feeling this way, or schedule time to talk to a professional for guidance. In addition, if you notice these signs in someone else, talking to them and letting them know that you are there to support them and to listen is a great starting point. 

Just because society is reopening and we are once again able to socialise with others does not necessarily mean that we are not feeling socially isolated. It’s important to nurture relationships with others in order to maintain good social connections.

Below we have some tips on how to avoid feelings of social isolation and stay socially connected to others. 

When you’ve been isolating, it’s easy to feel that people you know are doing just fine and may not like or need to hear from you. This is a common reinforcing negative loop brought on by loneliness, and it’s usually not the case. The reality is that other people may be feeling the same and might really appreciate a message or a call just to check in. Challenging these negative assumptions is an important first step and it is better to just go ahead and reach out to people you know and see what happens. You may find that your friends and acquaintances need you just as much as you need them and it is also nice to just feel a sense of connection again. If some time has passed since you spoke, this simply means there are lots of things to catch up on.
It goes without saying that if you are feeling isolated or lonely, it is important to maintain a level of self-care, just as it is if you have a hectic social life. A good balance is key and finding time to be social, alongside time to rest, eat well, exercise and take adequate breaks combine to make up a healthy lifestyle. Practising self-care leads to greater levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, while also staving off mental health issues. Being social again can lead to more alcohol intake, late nights and rich food; so it’s important to be mindful of achieving a good balance as you readjust to an open society again.

Living alone isn’t a guarantee of loneliness, just like living with others doesn’t necessarily mean connection. However, it’s important to find a living situation that suits and brings the right balance of connection and independence. If you are working from home and living alone and finding that you are struggling with isolation and loneliness, take action to make changes and see what the options are. Although you might not be able to move house, or your normal working office space may have changed, it is important to plan ahead and find ways to meet with colleagues in-person on a regular enough basis.

This can include scheduling time in the office as it reopens, renting space to get together, planning social gatherings or just having walking meetings; the key is to be creative in how you connect again. Just getting outside during the day can provide a greater sense of connectedness to others, or attending a couple of meetings or sifting through your emails in a coffee dock instead of at your desk . Even consider going to a nearby park during work for a change of scenery and to be more creative, which can help you feel more connected to nature and have a more positive outlook. 

Work relationships can help you to feel more connected to others. Overall, people with better co-worker relationships have lower self-reported loneliness scores, and those scores improve more when there’s a feeling of collaboration. Ask a colleague if they would like to go for a coffee ,or if you’re working from home, make the effort to give them a call rather than an email and share some casual chit-chat. WFH environments can be comfortable but isolating and your colleagues will appreciate the effort of checking in together.
Social groups like book clubs, choirs, and sporting groups are a great source of social interaction. Anyone can feel isolated at times, and while this is ok, everyone can benefit from community and group participation. Plus, these groups usually meet at a set time each week and this routine is great for adding some social structure to the week. Conversations about shared interests are great for boosting confidence, knowledge and connectedness. 

If you find you are struggling with feelings of social isolation, try writing down your thoughts. How long have you been feeling this way? Is there a certain time of the day where they are strongest? Are there certain days? Then make a list of things that you enjoy doing and that make you laugh, bring you happiness and that you can look forward to. These can be as simple as going for a walk, drawing, painting, reading, listening to or playing music or a podcast, or talking to an old family member or friend. When you notice these thoughts and feelings creeping up, have a look in your journal and try one of your suggestions. Even if it only makes a small difference, this is a step in the right direction and cumulatively it can lead to great results.  

It’s important to remember that just because you are feeling socially isolated and alone does not mean that you are alone, as every person is part of an ever increasing set of groups. Within these groups are people that care and who want to know how you are feeling. There are times that you might have to make the first move and although it may be challenging, it’s proven to pay off in the long run, because staying connected is good for all of us.

For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey.