In an ever-connected world social isolation and loneliness is on the increase, becoming an emerging area of risk for business by changing the way they engage with employees, deliver services to customers and their unique role in communities. While business and governments are always keen to invest in bricks and mortar, it is the intangible role of relationships and human connection, that make the difference.
Most people would be surprised at the number of people who don’t have anyone to converse with at home at night, or who have no plans to see anyone over the weekend. This is no longer just an issue affecting only the elderly or infirm.
Emerging technology, increase in interstate and global mobility, the rising numbers of single people and the increasing trend of people working from home are all slowly chipping away at the number of face-to-face relationships and interactions a person has, and explains why we are seeing loneliness on the increase in new demographics. Our eat, sleep, work and do little else lifestyles directly plays into the hands of social isolation and the increased risk of mental health issues such as depression, dementia, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. When up to 60% of people are identifying themselves as ‘often feeling lonely’ it's an important issue for business to understand, and do something about. These are just some of the ways that a business can make a difference:
Work – whether paid or volunteer – not only takes up a large amount of an individual’s waking hours but provides a critical social network and outlet. Providing a work environment that supports and helps social interactions and relationships, in an appropriate way, can not only help individual employees, but contribute to employee engagement, reduce costs from staff turn-over and improved productivity.
Understanding and investing in social capital – social capital describes the quality of community relationships, networks and trust and is key to thriving businesses and communities. This includes looking beyond bricks and mortar investments to also investing in the time and resources, it takes to create things like community centres, gardens or sporting clubs.
Value add to core business – by thinking more creatively there are many opportunities to help positively contribute to social capital through core business whether that by creating a space for people to meet, contributing to local culture, supporting employee volunteering or engaging community groups in the work of your organisation.
Make sure everyone is invited to the party – inclusion is an important part of addressing social isolation as it is often people who struggle to engage in general that experience loneliness. It’s worth reflecting how easy it is for people from different backgrounds, gender, age, sexual orientation, mental illness or mobility levels to engage with your business and community.
Build it and they will come – well, no actually. Businesses need to go a step further, seeking out people who are new to town or experiencing a life transition and helping connect with the local community. This might include formally engaging people to lead the charge but putting on events or starting a community newsletter or Facebook page.
Have some fun – whether in the workplace or in the community, events are sometimes seen as a bit fluffy but are actually an important mechanism to build social connections and culture. Getting involved in Christmas, Halloween or the local Spring Carnival can help people feel connected and more active, giving them and the community a much higher chance of thriving.
If we build a hospital we need to ensure the framework is in place to provide a healthy social life for the workers who move to the area to work there. If we build a university, we need to provide regular opportunities for students who are living on campus to meet other people. If we build a housing development, we need to think how can we support the residents socially and create a community with a village feel.
Addressing social isolation can be tackled by every aspect of an organisation; Westpac have developed the “Prime of Life” programme which includes career planning and training to support employees aged +50 to continue to engage in the workforce on their own terms. Bendigo Bank donate a large percentage of their profits back to building local communities adding up to over $200 million since 1998. Lendlease have developed a comprehensive approach to engaging and positively contributing to community development where they are located. Yes, it’s all our responsibilities to help address social isolation as part of our daily lives, but our communities need business to get involved, because it’s business who can have the biggest impact.
Wendy Wilson is a Senior Consultant with Many Small Things and founder of LB30 a social enterprise that provides the tools and opportunities for women to build friendships, and become integrated in their local communties.