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The Strategy framework
The Government’s Loneliness Strategy will be its first step in tackling the long-term challenge of loneliness. Loneliness is a complex issue that affects many different groups of people, and its evidence base is still developing.
Our approach is to focus the Strategy where we have the clearest opportunity for government action and further learning. Alongside this we will also be working with partners to explore how we can improve the evidence base, to inform future government policy.
The definition we are using and the focus of government work
Loneliness can be defined as a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want. (Perlman, D. and Peplau, 1981)
The current evidence base tends to measure loneliness in terms of frequency, and it shows that people who feel lonely most or all of the time are more likely to suffer ill health and to generate significant costs for society (for example, see Shankar et al, 2011; Valtorta et al, 2017; Steptoe et al, 2004; Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2009; Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015).
In general, an approach that prevents harm or takes action early on is more effective than one that acts once people have suffered harm. Specifically on loneliness, people who feel lonely more often can become more sensitive to perceived threats and withdraw further, creating a vicious cycle (Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2010). So we are interested in approaches that reduce the risk, prevent loneliness or that intervene early, before loneliness becomes entrenched.
Based on this, we have decided that the Strategy should focus on what government can do to reduce the risk of people feeling lonely most or all of the time.
To focus the Strategy, we have worked with experts to understand what might increase the risk of people becoming lonely most or all of the time. Loneliness seems to fluctuate over the life course, with different causes at different ages (Qualter et al, 2015), and certain life events (sometimes called trigger or transition points) increasing the risk (Jopling and Sserwanja, 2016). We are aware that this will vary from person to person, and so one trigger point will not necessarily affect everyone the same way. However, these are still useful points for us to be aware of, as times when preventative or early action could help people.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently analysed how individual circumstances and characteristics contribute to the likelihood of experiencing loneliness, holding all else equal. The ONS found that the following were significant factors:
- age - younger people (16-24) were significantly more likely to report feeling lonely
- gender - women were more likely to report feeling lonely
- marital status - widowed people were more likely to report feeling lonely
- disability and ill-health (self-reported) - those reporting were more likely to feel lonely
- number of adults in the household - those living alone were more likely to report feeling lonely
- caring responsibilities - those caring were more likely to report feeling lonely
- neighbourhood connectedness - those who do not chat to neighbours more than to say hello, or do not feel as though they belong to or satisfied with their neighbourhood were more likely to report feeling lonely
- how often you meet up in person with family members or friends - those who met up once a month or less were more likely to feel lonely
The ONS also looked at how factors might combine and cluster together. We are aware that there are caveats to this analysis (for example, it is constrained by the sample size and survey questions, and relies on one year’s data from one survey), but we feel this is currently the best available information on the particular risk factors associated with loneliness across the board (as opposed to standalone research relating to individual groups).
We are using this research to identify where there are opportunities for government action that could prevent constant loneliness.
Based on this, we believe that the strategy should include both some policies that reduce the risk of loneliness across all groups in society, and some that focus on reducing the risk at specific trigger points for key groups highlighted by the ONS analysis: young people; people in poor health; carers; unemployed people; and bereaved people. This is not a judgment that these groups should be prioritised over others - rather, it is a recognition that there are specific policies that could help reduce loneliness within these particular groups. We will learn from the impact that these policy changes have and use this to plan future action, both across society and for specific groups.
Call for evidence
We are now asking for organisations with expertise and experience in tackling loneliness to help us by providing views on the Strategy framework we are developing. We are particularly interested in responses from people with specialist knowledge in the areas we are planning to focus on.
The survey will close at 10am on Friday 20th July 2018. Responses received after this date and time will not be analysed.