It’s a common misconception that loneliness is about isolation from or lack of contact with other people. In reality, people differ greatly in how they respond to being on their own. Loneliness is a feeling of being socially isolated that can and often does occur even when someone is surrounded by and has frequent contact with others. It’s the nature of the connections we have with other people that counts. University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo’s research shows that about 20 percent of the general population suffers from chronic feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

In a review of loneliness in New Scientist (22 July, 2017 pages 30 – 35) Moya Samer explores data from research. Loneliness affects people of all ages. Although it is most associated with old people confined to their homes, a report in 2010 by the Mental Health Foundation fund that while 17% of people over 55 worried about being lonely, 36% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 did. Other studies show that schoolchildren also feel lonely more often than is generally realised.

And loneliness is strongly associated with increased risk of every most major mental and physical diseases, from burnout and dementia to heart disease and cancer. The lonelier people are, the more likely their immune system is to be in overdrive. In the workplace, loneliness is influenced by organizational climate and is associated with low levels of employee engagement and well-being.

To remain emotionally healthy, people need at least five close relationships – family or friends, according to studies by Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford[1]. And they should spend about 40% of their “social effort” with these people.

So what can coaches and mentors do to recognise loneliness in their clients and support lonely clients? Some practical indicative signs of loneliness include:

·     Poor sleep patterns and feeling tired in the daytime

·     Avoidance of social interaction (if you are not confident in your ability to connect with others socially, being in a crowd is not an enjoyable experience)

·     Having lots of acquaintances but few or no strong and close friendships

If you suspect loneliness, you can ask them to complete the Loneliness Scale, designed by Daniel Russell at the University of Southern California. This and other loneliness scales are explored in an article by Oshagan and Allen[2]. Samer presents a shortened version of the survey, with 10 questions, scored on a scale of 1 (never) to 4 (always). The average score for these questions is 20; 25 indicates a high level of loneliness and 30 a very high level. The questions are:

·     How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?

·     How often do you feel you have no-one to talk to?

·     How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?

·     How often do you feel as if no-one understands you?

·     How often do you find yourself waiting for someone to call or write?

·     How often do you feel completely alone?

·     How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?

·     How often do you feel starved of company?

·     How often do you feel it is difficult for you to make friends?

·     How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?

If the person is suffering from loneliness, then as a coach or mentor you can be helpful in a number of ways. First, however, you must be reasonably sure that the person is not suffering from clinical depression, which is outside the scope of the coaching / mentoring relationship and requires appropriate therapeutic intervention.

If it is appropriate for you to help, some practical steps include:

·     Help them to focus on the quality of the relationships they hold with others, rather than the quantity. That doesn’t mean closing out on Facebook. Rather, it means paying more attention to relationships that matter.

·     Explore the concept of “kinship” with them. Who do they know, who shares the same interests and values with them? It’s easier to talk with and build connections with people, who have a similar understanding of what’s important.

·     Finding a cause that gives greater meaning to life can have a major positive impact on loneliness, according to more recent studies at UCLA, by diverting the person’s attention from their fears towards the difference they want to make. Rediscovering a sense of purpose is also energising and so counter-effects the energy sapping tendencies of feeling lonely.

It’s also useful to reflect upon our own experiences of loneliness as a coach or mentor. Coaching and especially team coaching can be a very lonely experience – so many of the team coaches I supervise talk about how isolated they feel when a team blocks their attempts to help. Consider: How do you score on the loneliness test? When do you feel most lonely and how do you help yourself break out of it? What can you do to build your own resilience to loneliness? How can you enhance the quality of relationships you have with clients, without compromising on professionality?

It’s high time we brought loneliness in from the coaching wilderness!

©  David Clutterbuck 2017

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