For the last three weeks, I have been meeting 1:1 with every member of my team, this is quite a challenge given there are c.200 across my directorate. The meetings have been short and sharp but I wanted to “check in” on how people were feeling and managing during the pandemic.
It has opened my eyes in a way I hadn’t expected, to the issues of loneliness.
The workplace, aside from being somewhere we do work, is also a source of social interaction; a place to have conversation, to provide support, to joke, to share worries and to make friends. For some, this may be the only time that they interact in a human way with others.
Before all this began, when I thought of loneliness I imagined the posters and campaigns I have seen throughout my life. Usually depicting a grey haired man or woman staring out of a window or longingly at a telephone that never rings. My experience during this pandemic couldn’t be further away from this.
During my 1:1 sessions, people have used many negative emotions to describe their state of mind. Lonely, bored, depressed, someone even used the word “desperate”. Another described herself as introverted and went on to say she was anxious about leaving the house and returning to “normality”.
In contrast to this I belong to a community WhatsApp group, this was setup by a neighbour to provide support to those residents shielding. The demographic is predominantly over 65 and many have stated this was their first experience of using technology to communicate socially. The WhatsApp community very quickly mobilised and is now sharing quilting tips, gardening photographs, videos as well as jokes and practical advice on covid-19 related activities such as hand-washing.
For those who were lonely before the pandemic new avenues have been created and they have discovered a new world of communication, for others their source of human interaction has been severed, their loneliness previously masked by the busy workplace. I am seeing a generation difference in how people are experiencing self-isolation and shielding, however it is of course entirely possible that individuals become more resilient to loneliness as they get older, possibly through the experience of significant life events and life transitions.
Technology has come into its own during this crisis, allowing people to communicate with one another. It has also enabled me to see and support my team. Prior to using video conference for 100% of my interactions I didn’t think it was possible to read another person’s body language or tap into how they were feeling via such a cold form of communication. That misconception has been blown out of the water. A video conversation doesn’t allow anybody anywhere to hide, there are no distractions (I wonder if that is why we are all describing ourselves as exhausted? We are taking in so much more human information).
My own experience of loneliness is most profound when we join our neighbours in the NHS clap on a Thursday. There is something moving about standing alone clapping with people I have never met before, a beautiful isolated community.
The issue of loneliness raises questions for me beyond the pandemic. Is single living conducive to good mental health? Is communal living a safe environment for vulnerable people? Does the workplace provide a social stimulus for individuals, should it? Do we know who is lonely in our society? Are we doing enough to support them?