OK, let’s get this out the way: we can all concede that the role itself sounds a tad, well…made up. The rather whimsical title is a little iffy, and frankly not unlike something you’d expect to encounter on a tour of J.K. Rowling’s imagination. So go on, here’s a free pass. Allow yourself an eyeroll. But just a tiny one. And make it quick, because a glance at the facts suggests that appointing a Minister of Loneliness isn’t just a nice thing to do – it’s a smart move.
There’s a couple of assumptions that are easy to make about loneliness. The first is that it’s entirely exclusive to the elderly and, while there are over 1.9 million older people in the UK who say they often feel invisible, there’s a total of 9 million who feel lonely most or all of the time. Bereavement and retirement can certainly trigger it but so can separation, divorce, health or mobility changes, and even becoming a new mother. When you look at the people in your company, just about anyone can be at risk of loneliness at one stage or another.
Loneliness is an abstract, depressing concept. The idea of not just some, but millions of people spending every day imprisoned in their own thoughts seems too overwhelming to even begin to address. Once accepting the magnitude of the problem, it can be hard to understand how this could affect business. But it does, because we’re human, and businesses are (largely) made up of humans. When our intangible cluster of thoughts and feelings become too much, they inevitably spill out and start to influence our behaviour and decision-making. When it’s an epidemic, the consequences start to stack up.
As it stands, loneliness erodes productivity to the point of costing UK employers £665 million per year. If the loneliness worsens, people are driven to seek more social contact elsewhere, or give up altogether. They quit their jobs. This voluntary turnover is estimated to cost £1.62 billion per year.
The second assumption is that it’s a purely psychological problem. It may start out like that, but suffering alone has a knock-on effect on physical well-being. In fact, it can take the same toll on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is why loneliness is linked not only to depression, but also to strokes and coronary heart disease. The subsequent sickness absence is estimated to cost UK employers £20 million per year.
Perhaps this is why the government are looking to tackle the subject. They’ve done their fair share of trying to warn us about obesity, smoking, alcoholism and drug problems. Which is good: few enjoy battling addiction and its dark twin, poor health. But loneliness is different. No one suffering from it thinks, go on, I’ll sneak in one more cheeky hour of social isolation. It’s not the result of a compulsion that we just can’t resist. Loneliness isn’t an urge, or a choice, or escapism. It’s sad, it’s expensive – but worse than that, it’s needless.
So, let’s shelve our reservations over whoever coined the fancy title, and cast a proactive eye over this lose-lose situation. If we’re to learn anything from these statistics, reducing loneliness is everyone’s business. What can you do to help?