Career advice

It could be lonely this Christmas

Loneliness is now a public health issue. What can you do to help patients and colleagues who might be experiencing it?

Loneliness is now a public health issue. What can you do to help patients and colleagues who might be experiencing it?

Picture: iStock

Most of the big retailers have released their much-anticipated Christmas TV adverts. Although we occasionally see a brave attempt at a social message, these adverts are largely a bit of fun, aimed at getting us into the festive spirit as we start the countdown to the big day itself.

And often they succeed – it is the season to be jolly after all, isn’t it?

Festive for some, challenging for others

Christmas can be a wonderful time, but as we all know, illness, death and tragedy pay no heed to the date and can strike at any time.

Spending Christmas in hospital is not on anyone’s wish list and can be challenging for even the most stoic patients. If you are working this Christmas, perhaps for the first time in your career, it's worth remembering why this time of year can be difficult for some. In contrast to what the glitzy ads would have us believe, lots of people are incredibly lonely.

‘With at least nine million people thought to be affected in the UK, loneliness is on the increase’

Many people don’t just feel lonely over the festive period – recent studies have shown that about 20% of UK adults feel lonely most or all of the time. Yet during this period, when there is such emphasis on ‘happy families’ and having fun, feelings can be significantly heightened.

The Campaign to End Loneliness says that although loneliness is a subjective and personal experience, there are risk factors to be aware of. These include a lack of social connections, lack of family nearby, having a caring responsibility, recent bereavement, being on a low income and having a sensory impairment. 

Identifying loneliness

Being aware of these risk factors could help you identify patients who are experiencing loneliness, but it’s also important to look out for your colleagues, friends and neighbours. The following points can help: 

  • Be mindful We tend to think of loneliness in the context of older patients, but it can affect all age groups. Younger people may ‘hide’ behind social media but not actually have any real interactions.
  • Don’t make assumptions Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Likewise, being with people does not mean you are not lonely. The sense of being ‘lonely in a crowd’ can be isolating – something to consider in relation to your fellow nurses.
  • Be sensitive Do not rush in with offers of help or support without thinking things through. Instead, try to engage in real conversations and listen to what the other person is saying. Small acts of kindness can go a long way.
  • Plan ahead Liaise with the multidisciplinary team if you feel that a patient could benefit from more social support at home.
  • Be inclusive In the run-up to Christmas you will likely be arranging nights out with your work colleagues. Although it is natural to want to be around those you are closest to, avoid creating cliques. Open invitations out and make an extra effort with colleagues who seem quiet or shy.
  • Spread some cheer Consider organising events for the ward or unit, such as carol singing or visits from local schools. This will not eliminate loneliness, but can make patients smile and reminisce about happier times.

Public health challenge

In the same way that we can all feel sad but not everyone is depressed, ongoing loneliness is different to the natural loneliness we all feel from time to time. It can totally define someone’s life, having a negative effect on physical and mental health.

With at least nine million people thought to be affected in the UK, loneliness is on the increase. So much so that last month, the government launched the UK’s first loneliness strategy, with prime minister Theresa May describing loneliness as ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’.

As with all public health issues, a collective approach from all healthcare professionals is needed. So, while you may not be able to eradicate loneliness, you can do your best to help those around you.

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach and former nurse 

Further information

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