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The importance of social connection at a time of physical isolation

While we are being told to self-isolate where practicable, it is important to recognise the impact that feelings of loneliness and social isolation may have on people’s mental health and immunity. With the right technology, it should be easy enough for businesses to require employees to work from home for a specified period. It may also be preferential to ask the most vulnerable in society to self-isolate for a period of time, to keep them safe from contagion. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the considerable impact that this is likely to have on people’s mental and physical health.

Loneliness is subjective - you could be surrounded by hundreds of people and still feel lonely. However, being socially isolated is likely to increase feelings of loneliness for many and that can have far reaching implications. Scientists in the field of human social genomics have identified that feelings of loneliness appear to up-regulate pro-inflammatory gene expression, while simultaneously down-regulating genes associated with our antiviral immune response. A shift that essentially dials down the part of the immune function responsible for tackling pathogens such as a virus. Increasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation is therefore likely to have an adverse effect on people’s ability to mount a successful immune response to the virus, albeit their risk of contracting it should be markedly reduced by self-isolating.

The challenge for all of us, both as a society and as human beings, is to figure out how can we ensure we stay emotionally connected to bolster our immune function, whilst also practising physical self-distancing to limit the spread of the virus. The more people panic and allow fear to cloud their judgement, the greater the risk that they will act in their own self-interests, rather than the greater good, as they lose sight of the bigger picture. We have seen this play out, with panic buying of soaps and sanitary products and people fighting over the last remaining packet of toilet roll. It becomes a zero-sum game of winners and losers, but mostly losers, given that our actions only serve to create an emotional wedge between us and those around us - adding to feelings of emotional isolation.

When we act selfishly, we erode the societal safety net around us and others, especially the most vulnerable. We miss opportunities for meaningful connection with others, connection that would remind us that we are not alone in our fight, but that we are in this together. When we feel fearful, we should remind ourselves of our common humanity and how we are much stronger together (and that our immune function is much stronger when we feel connected to and supported by others). We can combat loneliness, both by seeking help if we feel lonely ourselves, as well as by supporting lonely and isolated people in our community. If you are healthy and able, could you check-in on the more vulnerable people in your community to ensure they feel supported emotionally, as well as ensuring they have adequate supplies?

In Italy, news has been spreading of how neighbours have taken to their balconies to sing together in solidarity. Around the world as far as New Zealand, people were inspired by the act of kindness from a young woman in Cornwall, who wrote postcards to people in her local community offering to help should they need it. In the development where I live with my wife, people have offered to pick-up groceries and supplies for those who are less able. We all have a part to play in combatting loneliness and supporting each other in these uncharted waters.

For businesses, especially for those people in leadership positions, how are you supporting employees who have been required to work remotely for a prolonged period, some for the very first time, to feel connected? Are you arranging regular catch-ups via video conference? Are you communicating regularly by email? Similarly, have you provided employees with ideas of how to keep structure to their day to bolster their mental health (making their bed, getting dressed, scheduling regular breaks, eating nutritious food etc). Have you discussed how they can best motivate themselves, as their diaries empty of meetings and projects are put on hold? These could be great opportunities to reflect and consolidate learnings from the past few months and plan ahead. How are you ensuring that more anxious employees aren’t being left all alone with their anxious thoughts, which could worsen their mental health?

There are plenty of opportunities for growth and connection during this challenging time. However, some people will need greater support and guidance than others. This is about ensuring that we all do our bit to help one another. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues and those in our community to ensure that no one is suffering in silence and that no one is left behind.

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