The devastating cost of Britain's loneliness epidemic – The Telegraph

The lonely are not just melancholy – they are costing UK employers £2.5bn every year
Charlotte Chapman used to hide in the cupboard when she felt lonely.
As a young child, her parents fought constantly and she would often shut herself away. When she fell pregnant at 17, however, her sense of isolation became unbearable.
“I lost most of my friends because none of them had children,” she says. “They were out living their lives, and I was here dealing with things on my own. I coped by writing a lot in my diary.”
Charlotte, now 30, is just one of 3.3 million people in the UK who is chronically lonely – a figure that has increased by a million since the pandemic hit, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Some of this reflects societal change. Fewer people know their neighbours or go to church. More of us are living our lives online, and jobs have become increasingly automated. Gig economy workers have an app for a boss and receive little more than a “thank you” at the door of their next delivery.
More people also live alone. The number of single person households has increased by 8.3pc over the last 10 years in the UK, and ranges from 25.8pc in London to 36pc in Scotland, according to the ONS.
As a nation, we have fewer friends, we speak to less people and we even walk faster. Urban walking speeds are 10pc higher than they were in the early 1990s, according to research by the British Council.
But the lonely aren’t just more melancholy. They’re also less healthy and die younger. A widely-cited British study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad in 2010 found that those with stronger social ties had a 50pc increased chance of survival than those with weaker connections. Loneliness, Holt-Lunstad found, carried health risks that were comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The cost of loneliness to UK employers has been estimated to be £2.5bn every year, according to the New Economics Foundation, although the true damage to the economy is unclear. Research conducted for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport showed the cost of workers being unhappier, less productive and more likely to be off sick amounted to almost £10,000 per person each year.
The impact is similar around the globe, and it’s led to some surprising behaviour. In Japan, pensioners are turning to crime because they prefer prison to isolation at home, while rich professionals in their thirties and forties are paying £30-an-hour to rent a friend.
People are also increasingly yearning for the company of machines. A recent survey by Ofcom showed smart speaker ownership nearly doubled to 39pc during the pandemic. Many single person households told the regulator that Alexa and Siri were “like having a friend in the house”.
A whole economy has blossomed because of loneliness. People are paying for hugs and “ordering friendship like it’s a cheeseburger,” says economist Noreena Hertz.
She believes we are living in a “lonely century” in which the youngest are the loneliest. “What I find really striking is that the young really are the loneliest generation. We think more about the elderly being lonely,” she says. “But even before the pandemic this was the biggest misconception.
“One in five millennials don’t have a single friend. These statistics are shocking.”
An ONS poll last month showed 38pc of young people aged between 16 -29 said they “often”, “always” or “sometimes” felt lonely. This compares with 17pc of over 70s, with more women reporting feelings of loneliness.  
Su Moore, chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, named after the late MP who was dedicated to tackling loneliness in the UK, says this has economic costs.
“We know that people who are lonely are more likely to need to access health services and they’re more likely to take time off work. So there is a cost to not addressing the issue of loneliness.”
Lockdowns during the pandemic made things worse, especially among people who were out of work. An ONS analysis of the first lockdown in 2020 found that areas with a “higher concentration of younger people and areas with higher rates of unemployment tended to have higher rates of loneliness”.
While the impact of repeated lockdowns is not yet fully understood, research shows that even short periods of isolation have a big impact on mental health. One study found that healthcare workers in Beijing who had been quarantined during the 2003 SARS outbreak were more likely to be suffering serious depression three years after the outbreak than those who had not, even though quarantine periods lasted less than a month.
Shanghai suffered a two-month lockdown earlier this year. “Policy makers and mental health professionals working to prepare for potential disease outbreaks should be aware that the experience of being quarantined can, in some cases, lead to long-term adverse mental health consequences,” research led by Xinhua Liu advised back in 2012.
Young people are also spending more time absorbed in a virtual world than the real one. These “digital distractions” have become so bad that councils in Sydney and Seoul installed stop/go lights in the floor so pedestrians can see if it’s safe to cross without so much as a glance up from their phones. It’s saved lives. The results of a five-year trial in South Korea showed pedestrian injuries fell by a fifth while fatalities dropped by 40pc.
But Moore at the Jo Cox Foundation says being online all the time can make feelings of loneliness worse.
“I think there’s that perception that young people are always on their phones and are always connected. But there’s a difference between being in touch with somebody and being genuinely connected,” she says. “So you can be chatting to someone on Instagram, but that doesn’t mean you actually have a genuine friendship with them.”
Hertz says the impact on the workforce of a permanent move to working from home could be huge. “We know that lonely workers are less motivated, less productive and more likely to quit than workers who aren’t lonely.”
This trend may be one of the factors behind the UK’s “Great Resignation”, where more people have moved jobs or quit work altogether since the pandemic.
There have been a record four million job-to-job moves in the UK over the past year, according to the ONS.
While much of this reflects the tight jobs market, Hertz says changes in the way we work, including working from home, have probably consigned the idea of a job for life to the past.
“Work has become increasingly transactional and commodified,” she says. “It’s very hard to feel part of an organisation if you are not seeing anyone. A whole generation of new employees have barely met their colleagues face to face, and so you’re much less likely to have any sense of loyalty.”
She says that companies will end up forking out huge sums to train people, just for them to leave.
“I think you’ve got to think about how that is going to impact turnover, work culture, our ability to innovate, collaborate, and actually deliver if we have an increasingly fractured workforce who feel increasingly disconnected from each other.”
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