It’s often said that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Working people don’t think twice about the benefits of walking into work every day and being greeted by familiar faces, joining colleagues for lunch or a coffee break, or taking a moment for a chat as they walk by in the hallway. They also might not appreciate the value of feeling useful and needed by colleagues, customers or clients. If you find yourself unemployed — whether by choice (such as retirement), or through job loss or illness — you might have discovered that losing that social contact and the sense of purpose that comes with work can leave a painful gap, often becoming a barrier in and of itself toward moving forward to find another job.
With Britain’s recent decision to appoint a Minister of Loneliness, there has been a lot of discussion about isolation as a public health concern. Professor John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who studied loneliness (and who sadly died recently at age 66), described it in The Lancet as “a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality,” where, “in industrialized countries around a third of people are affected (…) with one person in 12 affected severely.”
For those who are unemployed, isolation isn’t just a result of losing colleagues and a workplace. People who are not working often find themselves withdrawn from their existing social circles due to the stigma of unemployment, not being in the mood to socialize, or simply having to cut back on socializing because of increased financial pressures. In addition, job seekers often face ongoing and relentless pressure and judgments from family and financial demands to continually job search, which increases stress and reduces their willingness to engage in the kind of self-care necessary to avoid job search burn out.
In an article he wrote in Psychology Today, Professor Cacioppo proposed four steps for dealing with chronic loneliness, which he summarized as EASE:
E is for Extend Yourself. Find ways to change things up a bit, even in small ways. Get involved in volunteer work where you might find an enjoyable and meaningful activity which isn’t too challenging: “You may begin to feel the positive sensations that can reinforce your desire to change, while building your confidence and improving your ability to self-regulate. Even ‘small talk’ about sports or the weather, when it is welcomed and shared, can be a co-regulating, calming device, and the positive change it can bring to our body chemistry can help us get beyond the fearful outlook that holds us back.” Of course, volunteering has many benefits for job seekers, including an opportunity to gain new experiences, add new skills to your resume, expand your network and maybe even gain a new reference for your job search.
A is for Action Plan. Plan a schedule that will help structure your time, so that you can begin to regain a sense of purposefulness and routine. Taking control over your time can be a powerful reminder that you are not passive victim of your circumstances. For this too, volunteer work can be effective to develop a sense of control, and remind people that they can impact on their own circumstances and state of mind. Volunteering can take many forms, from working directly with people in a school environment, to caring for animals, or even packing boxes at the food bank, all of which “give you a natural basis for conversation, perhaps even connection,” as described by the Professor.
S is for Selection. Simply adding people to your social circle or forcing yourself to socialize uncomfortably with large random groups of people is not necessarily going to help you tackle loneliness. Cacioppo explains that “Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure.” It is important to seek out those with whom you are comfortable. Not everyone enjoys loud or casual conversations. Some people prefer to just be around others and not talk as much, while other people enjoy more light conversation. Some may really enjoy discussing a particular topic, rather than making random chit chat — for them it might be best to join a group of people with shared interests, such as a photography or pet owners group. Meetup.com can be a useful source of such groups in your neighbourhood, where you can meet others in person rather than online.
Finally, E is for Expect the Best. Optimism is an attractive trait — optimistic people tend to elicit the same from others. Professor Cacioppo encourages people to practice being optimistic by focusing on how things might work out in a positive way, noting that “while we wait for the change in us to register in the world around us, fear and frustration can push us back into the critical and demanding behaviour associated with loneliness. This is when patiently focusing on the small physiochemical rewards of reaching out to feed others can help keep us on track.”
Job seekers, take note if you are feeling isolated or slowly withdrawing from your social circle. Don’t ignore the impact of social isolation — make sure your loneliness doesn’t become a barrier to building a meaningful life and finding another job. Take some proactive steps, even small ones. Find activities such as volunteer work or join a group of like-minded people. Look for any opportunity to change things up, create a routine and connect with others. This can go a long way to avoid the profound impacts of loneliness and help you take better control over your career as well as your health.