Are you lonesome tonight? Check how your colleagues and students are feeling

15 May 2022, 6:00

Social, emotional and existential loneliness may be affecting more of your colleagues and learners than you realise, writes Stuart Rimmer

Amid busy college corridors and offices, it might seem strange to talk about loneliness.

This week a charity that the FE sector has supported for many years, the Mental Health Foundation, has placed the focus on loneliness.

A 2020 government review suggested that 47 per cent of adults experience periods of loneliness.

Almost ten per cent of 16-to-24-year olds report they often or always feel lonely.

Sadly, higher social deprivation or lower educational outcomes also negatively impacts on loneliness.

Being single, divorced, unemployed or with poor health can increase chances of feeling lonely.

Younger people can also experience loneliness and isolation around issues such as sexual orientation, low self-esteem, starting a new course or new job, relationship break-ups, or moving to a new place, such as university.

When described in these terms, the people who can often feel lonely sound very much feels like an FE cohort. 

Loneliness is different to social isolation but students and staff might experience both of these.

It has links to long-term poor physical and mental health. Within each of our classes or teams we might easily find someone who feels lonely if we look hard enough.

People can feel lonely in relationships, excluded or on the edge of teams. People can feel lonely in a crowded room. 

The pandemic undoubtedly amplified loneliness and isolation.

Digital exclusion continues to be a huge contributing factor towards “designing in” isolation.

During the pandemic, both staff and students reported this and sought solace in the community of colleagues on site. But we haven’t fully considered a post-pandemic strategy. 

Loneliness and isolation in leadership roles is well-reported, with over half of CEOs in a Harvard Business Review study reporting loneliness.

Leaders can miss out on the social elements of work and friendships (this is not me looking for mates!). This can lead to a loss of empathy and lower tolerance levels among CEOs as a result, which can then impact on staff. Isolation is also linked to burnout. 

Leaders can miss out on the social elements of work and friendships

Teacher demands of the job can add further pressure and crowd out work life balance leading to social isolation.

In my own college the changing teaching styles post-pandemic, with moves towards digital or remote preparation and some support staff still working from home, has seen greater disconnection from teams. It is much easier to become professionally isolated.

I often speak of the importance of ‘teamship’ within departments and the wider college. Being connected and having a sense of shared values and belonging is the starting point for this but we’ll need to be proactive to ensure all members of the team are included.

The What Works Wellbeing Centre suggests there are three distinct types of loneliness.

Firstly, social loneliness: a lack of quantity as well as quality of relationships.

Secondly, emotional loneliness: loss or lack of meaningful relationships or belonging.

Finally, existential loneliness: a feeling of being separate from others, which is sometimes linked to trauma. 

For me, colleges are a place of connection and community. They have always proudly been a place for inclusion. We are a place of recovery and renewal. As we have said many times, we don’t always know the lives of students or colleagues beyond the college gates.

Beyond our educational mandates, creating connection is a college’s ‘super power’.  Everyone should be able to find a place to belong – to a class, a study group, a team.

The Good for Me, Good for FE campaign has now teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation to support concepts such as social prescribing (where social activities are prescribed for people’s health) and volunteering.

So, this Mental Health Awareness Week I’d encourage everyone to take that extra moment to check in with colleagues and all students.

Ensure everyone has a connection and, as ever, welcome everyone into our college communities.

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