Is technology the cure or cause for loneliness and poor mental health?

Psychologists, clinicians and wellness experts explore technology’s role in the mental health crisis, and its negative and positive roles in workplace health.

Yugi the Giraffe - 11 May 2022

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is throwing a spotlight on loneliness. Once considered the preserve of widows and the elderly, COVID-19 made it a common experience for many – and forced it into the public rhetoric.  

A smile, an understanding ear, shared moments, a hug. Human interaction isn’t just what enriches life – it’s physically beneficial, and imperative for mental health. Loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful as obesity to physical and mental health.

In its first 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic increased global prevalence of anxiety and depression by a massive 25%, according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organisation. And, unsurprisingly, one major contributing factor cited by WHO was the stress caused by social isolation, along with constraints on people’s ability to work, receive the support of loved ones and to engage in their communities.

The question is, did video chat distance people emotionally as well as physically when it replaced the conference room, or did it provide a social lifeline through months of mandatory distancing? Is technology the solution, or the problem?

Perhaps it can be both.

The connection between frequent social media use and feelings of social isolation has been widely reported. But at the same time, a multitude of apps are providing a path to learning, connection, and socialising. On the one hand it’s compounding mental health issues; in other forms it’s teaching mindfulness, meditation, and providing counselling lifelines.

Technology’s complex role in loneliness

We’re living in a hyper-connected world, with the ability to communicate with people wherever they are, whenever they’re there… in fact, it can be hard to disconnect from these channels.

And here lies the problem. “Ever since emails got put on our phones, our working day has increased,” says Emma Gannon, Sunday Times bestselling author, speaker and host of the number one creative careers podcast in the UK, Ctrl Alt Delete.

“We’re feeling slightly more disconnected from our friends, because of being isolated from lots of people for a long time. We’re miscommunicating and falling out with people more than ever. And we’re sort of numbing ourselves with our phones – it’s almost like it’s a substance in many ways. I don’t blame anyone for that. We’ve had a really hard two years, so escaping into our phone and scrolling endlessly can be a way of dealing with that.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a clearer division between the home and the workplace. But the boundaries became blurred with the push to remote working.

“We’re all working out what hybrid working means in the long-term, and really only just starting to understand the implications it has on mental health” says Lauren Berkemeyer, VP of Marketing at YuLife. “The online world is starting to get to know us better than we even know ourselves, and better than our friends and our family do too. How is that impacting our mental health, our relationships and our feelings of isolation in the long term?”

Loneliness can be a cause of mental health issues, but it’s also a common symptom of them. The solution is as complex as the cause, and a robust EAP provision with counsellors just one call away is just one example of how employers support their teams in loneliness and other mental health issues. But can technology also offer preventative measures?

Employee benefits that focus on creating better mental and physical health – exercise, sleep, mindfulness, money management, diet – all help on a mental and physical health level. But where technology comes into its own is when it’s used to drive engagement in those health-improving activities. It can create lifestyle habits within a community that create shared interests, and can lead to connections and conversations beyond work-related chatter.

“I think where companies have a real advantage over other areas of people's lives, in terms of making a difference, is that there's a power of community,” says YuLife’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, a GP of more than 20 years, advocate of lifestyle medicine, TedX speaker and podcast host. “If many people in your workforce are engaging in these small lifestyle changes together, people talk about it, they share stories, and that fosters and generates a culture.” And giving people a common interest beyond work, with opportunities to engage beyond work-related issues with our colleagues.

Community matters

The power of community was shown most clearly in a Harvard Study, tracking 268 people and their children – with the results finding that the warmth of our relationships had the greatest impact on life satisfaction and health.

On average, people spend 1,795 hours a year at work. The relationships we make during those 84,365 hours in a lifetime can be where employees have the sense of community that counts against loneliness.

“I really think that employers are the key to change in the health and wellbeing, in many ways, of the nation. If they get it right, and the employees feel the difference, the benefits for work and for home life are just profound,” says Dr Chatterjee.

How can people leaders combat loneliness in the workplace?

In our latest eBook, we speak to psychologists, clinicians and wellness experts including Emma Gannon, Li Åslund and Samantha Seaton to explore technology’s role in workplace mental health - as well as highlight the times when it offers the solution that many could be looking for. Download it here.

Yugi the Giraffe

Yugi is our YuLife mascot. Like all giraffes they've got a big heart – in fact the biggest heart of all land animals.