How social isolation impacts our mental health

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How social isolation impacts our mental health

Lockdowns and separation from loved ones have left many people feeling lonely.

If you’ve been feeling lonely since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, you’re in good company. Brisbane-based writer Ruth, who lives alone, admits to struggling when she also found herself working full time from home.

“There was a novelty factor at first – everyone would get on Zoom calls and it actually felt quite fun and social,” says Ruth. “But pretty soon that all just stopped. I could go days without speaking to another person and I would get quite sad and teary. I felt really lonely and alone.”

Research shows 22% of Aussies reported feeling lonely during the first lockdown period, with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men saying they were feeling the effects of social isolation.

By the end of 2020, things had escalated. Around 50% of Aussies admitted to feeling lonelier since COVID, resulting in higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression with adults living alone reporting the highest levels of loneliness and mental health issues.

With the ever-present threat of new outbreaks and resulting lockdowns, and many of us still working from home and cut off from our loved ones overseas, what do we need to know about feeling lonely so we can learn how to cope better?

The effects of missing our loved ones

Continued lockdowns and border restrictions mean many Australians have been separated from family for long periods of time during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Although almost 93% of Aussies made the effort to stay in touch with family members living away from them, 37% admitted they found it hard to connect properly, and began to feel lonely.

Loneliness for elderly people separated from family has been particularly tough. Just 23% of people over 70 years had daily contact with family, compared with 40% of people under the age of 40.

How to help yourself feel less lonely

  • Make a video or phone call to family members a part of your daily routine. Setting aside a regular time that suits you both means you’re more likely to be able to concentrate and connect properly.
  • Sharing online activities, such as games, reading or virtual classes can also be a good way of feeling as though you’re doing something together.
  • Dropping off or sending a care package to people you miss – or those who you know are missing loved ones – can also be a good way to feel close to someone.

How to help others with loneliness

Staying connected can be hard if you don’t know how to use technology effectively. During the first Australian lockdown, only 33% of people over 70 years old used video calls, compared to 58% of those aged under 40. If you can’t be with someone to help them understand how to use online services, Be Connected is a free government website with free and easy lessons.

While many of the restrictions related to COVID have been eased or lifted, as a society we are much more aware of loneliness as an issue, and for many it can be a fact of everyday life.

How missing work can impact us

Although many people have found the flexibility of working from home (WFH) convenient, there’s a big risk of loneliness and social isolation for people who now work solely, or even partly, from home.

The lack of formal and informal connections with colleagues, including water cooler chats and face-to-face meetings, can make us miss being in the office.

Most workers don’t want to work remotely all the time, with nearly 60% of people preferring to have a mix of both remote and office work.

“I started calling people more than I had in years,” says Ruth, who abandoned text messages for real conversations. “Hearing someone’s voice just made me feel less lonely, and what would have been a few quick texts often turned into an hour on the phone, just chatting. It made a big difference.”

If you’re feeling lonely or know someone who is, these ideas might help:

How to cope with working from home loneliness

  • Be proactive. Set up virtual get-togethers with colleagues at lunch time, so you’re still getting some social interaction.
  • While email and texts are a way to communicate, try picking up the phone. Hearing someone’s voice can often help you feel more connected.
  • Make sure you connect with friends or family before or after work, so you have some other social interaction and aren’t relying on work colleagues to fill the gaps.

How to help lonely colleagues

  • Check in with your people. If there’s someone you think is finding WFH hard, reach out, ask how they’re doing, and let a manager know.
  • As a manager, regular check-ins with staff are essential, both on a professional and personal level. Team meetings that aren’t all about work can be a good way to help people feel connected, so make sure there’s a social side to some online chats.
  • When people are in the office, make an extra effort to stop and say hello, go out for lunch or set a date to do something social.

Getting used to the new normal

COVID compromised our lives, and many are still grappling with the ongoing effects.

Having been isolated for long periods, it can feel daunting to reconnect or start going out socially again. Some children would have been nervous returning to school, while some adults might be reluctant to go out with large groups.

With almost 30% of Aussies born overseas, many are still facing the loss and loneliness associated with that separation from loved ones.

While working from home and checking in to every café is the new normal, it’s only natural to feel a sense of loss for the way things were.

Ruth is now back working in her city office half the week and says it’s a good balance. “I love going back into the office and appreciate the interactions I get there more than I ever did before COVID. But I really value some of the benefits of working from home too, like going for a walk in the middle of the day, or getting my washing done.”

How to cope with life after COVID-19 lockdowns

  • Loss of your normal routine can be hard to deal with, particularly when it’s out of your control. Firstly, acknowledge you’re feeling lonely and allow yourself to feel sad about it.
  • Think about how you can feel connected to the people or things you miss. While video calls and virtual catch-ups might not replace meeting people face-to-face, they can be a good way to create a temporary routine that gives you some connection with the outside world.
  • Making sure you have a regular sleep pattern, are eating well and exercising can also help keep low mood at bay.

How to help others who are missing normal life

Around a third of parents reported feeling worried about their children’s mental health during the first Australian lockdown, with another report confirming that loneliness put children’s wellbeing at risk, even after social isolation had ended.

Making time to talk to your children about how they’re feeling is essential. Read books together that deal with the subject of loneliness and reassure them it’s ok to feel sad. Arrange times for them to talk to friends or play games online, and make sure they have enough time to be active outside.

How to get help when feeling lonely

If you feel you need help dealing with loneliness, there is support available.

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing services are unique to HCF, offering eligible HCF members* access to online video support and navigation to other mental health services as needed.

If you’re concerned about how your child is responding to the pandemic, HCF members with hospital or extras cover also have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4–11 learn to manage tough life situations.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find more mental health help:

Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021

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