How do you put a dollar figure on the value of a friend? A family? A partner?
In a pandemic that has locked the world away, it’s becoming an increasingly pressing question, and one that researchers are begging for more studies into.
Loneliness is a problem with a billion faces: everyone now knows someone who was - or still is - stranded overseas, unable to see their family. Or you might be a single person living alone in Sydney, who - up until now - had their contact with other people limited to a socially distanced walk.
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And for Australia’s older generations, loneliness could show up as 18 months of anxiety around spending time with loved ones, or even just enjoying a flat white at a cafe. For Australia’s youngest, it means studying for exams without the support of their friends.
Most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives.
Around 15 per cent of people reported experiencing high levels of loneliness in 2019, the Consumers Health Forum found.
And before the pandemic struck, one in two Australians reported feeling lonely at least once a week, while a quarter experienced it for three or more days.
COVID-19 has taken it to the next level.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Wednesday confirmed another 177 new cases of community transmission.
The lockdown, which is now in its fifth week, will be extended for at least another four weeks until the end of August.
But single people living alone will now be able to see one other person in designated “singles bubbles”, as concerns about lockdowns' mental health reach fever pitch.
Loneliness has roots in inequality and its costs are in the billions
Loneliness is a problem with distinct economic drivers and ramifications, Monash University research fellow Claryn Kung revealed in June this year.
The Monash University’s Centre for Health Economics researcher is part of a team who studied how loneliness manifested in different income groups. They found that loneliness was more likely to manifest in those with smaller incomes.
“When comparing respondents in the bottom 20 per cent of the household income distribution with those in the highest 20 per cent, people with higher income were less likely to report being lonely by 5.8 percentage points for females, and by 6.1 percentage points for males,” Kung said.
The same trend occurred when comparing those living in the lowest and highest socioeconomic areas.
“Studies based in the UK have further estimated the costs of prolonged loneliness to the health and social care system, and to employers. The latter study suggests an estimated total cost to UK employers (e.g. due to sick days and productivity loss from loneliness-related health conditions) of roughly £2.5 billion (AUD$4.71 billion) per year,” Kung said.
The Monash University research found that greater healthcare usage was markedly related to higher incidence of loneliness, but noted that it would be a huge challenge to put a dollar figure on healthcare usage directly tied to loneliness.
They called for significantly more studies on the economic drivers and costs of widespread loneliness.
Another study of 5,270 US Medicare beneficiaries published in the Journal of Ageing Health found that people who were socially isolated cost the system $1,643 more per year. Widowed seniors cost even more - an extra $3,276.
The combined costs of physical issues that can be worsened by loneliness is more than $38 billion, mental health service On the Line said in a submission to the Productivity Commission.
Loneliness epidemic a problem brewing for years
Loneliness can pose a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity, according to research performed by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA.
And it could even be defined as an epidemic of its own, Holt-Lunstad believes.
Speaking to Yahoo Finance, demographer Bernard Salt said western countries around the world have for years been shifting in ways that have led to more loneliness.
The UK appointed its first Minister for Loneliness in 2018 in a bid to tackle the country’s isolation epidemic.
Salt said loneliness is partly a byproduct of longer life spans, and an increasing rate of divorce. Essentially, we’re living longer, and we’re more likely to be living alone.
At the other end of the spectrum, the higher likelihood for young people to live by themselves and to couple up later in life is increasing its prevalence in this cohort.
Now, with the pandemic, the work from home revolution will only add another ingredient to the mix.
“There’s an argument to say that after a period of depression, or a pandemic, we’ll want to celebrate and go out and socialise,” Salt said.
“But I think if you look at the mass market… and the way people prefer to work from home, shop at home and watch Netflix, we’re becoming more home based.”
He said the pandemic is not an event that society simply needs to get through before returning to normal programming.
“Our normal lives have changed, it’s a seismic shift and it’s probably going to be at least a two-year period [before it’s over],” he said.
“That’s the time frame of a war… it’s an era that produces consumer behaviour and social behaviour on the other side.”