Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness was bubbling up as its own pandemic with progressive evidence of patient harm.
Dr. Juliann Holt Lunstad, a neuroscientist out of BYU, has studied loneliness for years, and she has found that the death risk from social isolation and loneliness exceed the risks associated with obesity and physical inactivity. Being lonely is apparently more harmful that being inactive and obese. Another study found those who are lonely incur a health risk of smoking nearly a pack per day and an increased risk of early death by 26 percent.
The human condition is not meant to be alone, and the pandemic has amplified an already accelerating social risk so many were and are suffering from. No one is completely self-sufficient and could not exist without the society in which we live, and our happiness is closely related to the community to which we belong.
Now we have a pandemic that isolates us like no other time. The impact on the exacerbation of a pre-existing condition of loneliness is going to be significant and prolonged. But the profound prevalence and impact of loneliness can help us craft conversations with patients to help navigate loneliness.
So, what do we do and say under these circumstances to patients who may be struggling before, and certainly now, with feeling alone? Here are three actions to think about when assessing and guiding loneliness as we speak to patients.
1. Begin to screen for loneliness
Particularly now. Simple screening questions might include:
- Do you feel isolated from others?
- Do you have someone to turn to?
- Is there someone you feel close to?
Part of the conversation is just seeing it and talking about it. Loneliness is not about being alone. Loneliness is the feeling of being left out and excluded and we have to screen it. When you want connection but don’t have it–that’s loneliness. By screening, you can identify it and let them know they are not alone in their loneliness, and there are simple things that can really help.
2. Engage in anti-loneliness behaviors
These might include:
- Talking with someone 15 minutes per day via FaceTime or Zoom, or even a phone call. These pandemic circumstances allow permissions of reaching out in the context, “I was thinking about you and want to know how you are doing?” This happened to me just this morning. It felt really good to be thought of.
- Focus on being 100 percent attentive to the people around you and dialed into them and conversations with them. So often, we’re not mindful of the current moment as we fear the future, and we lose the connection opportunity to connect when we need it most.
- Find a chance to serve a higher, purposeful mission. Volunteer at a food bank or other areas of community need. There are countless opportunities to help and serve that reflect a compelling countermeasure to feeling alone. There is nothing like jumping in to feel more connected to others and purpose.
3. Let your patients know it is not just them
Express empathy by sharing that you and many of your healthcare team members feel the same way. Normalizing the feeling of loneliness to patients that they’re not alone in your loneliness can be incredibly helpful.
Reflection & Action
What approaches have you found helpful in having a conversation about loneliness with your patients, your team, and your family? How have you battle loneliness yourself?
Taking these actions and putting into place that makes the impact. As we begin to hunt for loneliness, we’re likely going to find it everywhere. Identifying it, talking about, and relating to it may go a long way to help us address it.
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