The impact of loneliness and isolation on our health and wellbeing

“Loneliness is a discrepancy between what you want and what you have in your relationships.”  Prof John Cacioppo, Centre for cognitive and social neurosciences, University of Chicago.

Human need for connection

As human beings we are literally wired to connect. We are social beings, who like any “pack animal” thrive on our connection and relationship to others, our own tribe. We have mirror neurons in our brain which chemically “light up” when we are in the company of people we recognise and like.  Small amounts of oxytocin are released into our brains when we feel a positive connection with others in their physical presence. That is why we experience warm and positive feelings, when attending a social or other event where people we relate to either through a common interest, or blood relation, or good friends are in attendance. We make sense and meaning about our lives by relating to others.  The pandemic has had a major adverse impact on this universal need to connect, resulting in unwanted isolation and associated loneliness, the discrepancy Cacioppo refers to above.

Important distinction between physical and emotional isolation

Cacioppo,  a scientist and a world leading researcher into the subject of loneliness explains that there is a difference between being physically isolated and emotionally isolated. Some people with limited social connections don’t suffer from loneliness, whilst others with lots of social connections do.

I’m sure we can all identify with the feeling of being at a party or other social event, where we experience emotional isolation or lack of connection to those around us.   Solitude for those people who consciously choose it for periods of time doesn’t necessarily impact their wellbeing. In fact, people can thrive on these periods.

Loneliness on the other hand is an inherently negative emotion and is associated with depressive symptoms when it continues over a long period of time.  Research carried out last year at the height of the first lockdown found that approximately 2.6 million people in the UK reported feeling lonely “often” or “always” between April and May 2020.

In my work as a senior leadership coach, I am regularly reminded of the loneliness and isolation leaders in senior positions can experience in their role. The adage that “it’s lonely at the top” rings true for many senior leaders.

Health risks and indicators associated with loneliness

According to combined research by the university of Surrey and Brunel university into the relationship between loneliness, isolation and inflammation in the human body, the picture starting to emerge is that social isolation and loneliness have distinct but closely related effects on inflammatory responses. Their study (the largest of its kind) found that social isolation was associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein a substance released into the blood stream when a tissue has been damaged, and increased levels of a substance associated with blood clotting.  In loneliness the connection and results were less clear cut. However, the conclusion of the researchers was that loneliness changes how the inflammatory system responds to stress.

“Both isolation and loneliness were linked to inflammation,” the research states “but while social isolation was linked to inflammatory markers themselves, for loneliness it was related to a pathway that involved how much those inflammatory responses can happen or are inhibited from happening.”

Other studies link loneliness with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study in Montreal using data collected by UK Biobank is the largest of its kind with about 40,000 participants. According to the research, lonely people are imagining and recreating missing social scenarios which is then building up the default network. Loneliness can accelerate the process associated with the actions of Alzheimer’s disease on the brain, affecting basic neural pathways leading to atrophy and eventually memory and language loss, thus strengthening the default network.

Importance of consciously working on social connections, personally and organisationally

When we don’t use these social connection skills for any extended period of time, such as during the pandemic, these skills can diminish and in extreme cases deteriorate completely. We can lose social confidence, which can also potentially result in increased anxiety and depressive symptoms and associated illness.

This is why it is so important for us all to continue to make and create connection during the pandemic, however we do it.

If we are not mindful, we are in danger of developing a “siege” or “isolated prisoner mentality.” When it becomes an effort to maintain these vital connections, that is a clear “red flag” to take concrete action.

It is vitally important also for organisations concerned with employee health and wellbeing in this area to pay attention to this. As lockdown restrictions are slowly lifted over the coming months, organisations need to plan for meaningful opportunities for all employees (not just teams) to have plenty of social opportunities to re-connect and re-build these skills, apart from BAU (business as usual) meetings. Any concerted effort developed and sustained by organisational wellbeing sponsors, will pay dividends in supporting people back to full working health and engagement.


Leadership Coach Elaine Akester specialises in working with Chief Officers and their senior leadership teams, supporting them to clarify identity, brand and impact to leverage for maximum value and performance. 


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