This old-fashioned activity could be the simple fix for loneliness

Dealing with loneliness during the pandemic has been a nightmare for many. For those that strived on workplace interaction, the switch to remote working hasn’t been able to provide that in-person feel that was there in the office.

Going from seeing your colleagues’ every move to getting a brief glimpse through Zoom a few days a week might be what’s considered the new norm, but for people that thrive on human interaction, the pandemic has been a devastating time for introverts and extroverts alike.

For those battling loneliness, there’s help via a phone call: People can feel less lonely by having a brief call a few times a week, according to a new study.

Research conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School found that if someone can control a conversation on the phone for 10 minutes multiple times a week, it can decrease loneliness, with respondents reporting feeling 20% less lonely after brief phone conversations.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, consisted of 240 older adults and recorded interactions for four weeks during the summer of 2020. Over the course of the month, the participants — which were clients from Meals on Wheels — called and led conversations, where they were trained on how to do so before the study. Typically, conversations ranged just over 10 minutes during the first week of the study, but remained around that mark for the remainder of the study. Conversations ranged from asking the subjects about their daily lives to the volunteers lives, according to researchers.

To gauge mood levels, researchers tracked participants’ loneliness, anxiety, depression and overall mental health with questionnaires, before and after the study. Calls were also randomized, meaning not everyone received calls, which is how researchers determined the impact of phone calls.

A three-question measurement called the UCLA Loneliness Scale helped determine levels of loneliness on a scale from three to nine, according to the study. For participants who received phone calls, they averaged a 6.5 at the start of the study and sat at 5.2 by the end, while the control group went from 6.5 to 6.3.

For participants who received phone calls, they reported having a 16% difference in loneliness compared to those who did not receive calls. In addition, those that were feeling at least mildly anxious at the start reported a 37% decrease by the end of the study, while participants that reported feeling at least mildly depressed dropped by 25%, according to the study.

“We found that people feel meaningfully better when someone connects with them on their terms, consistently and authentically,” said lead study author Maninder Kahlon. “In a time of overwhelming need for mental health services across America, this approach offers rapid improvements in loneliness, depression and anxiety. Better still, it’s scalable because it’s delivered by people who are not mental health professionals,” said Kahlon.

How loneliness can hurt work productivity

General loneliness has been dubbed an epidemic by medical professionals for a while. The COVID-19 pandemic has only elevated those levels and research long before the pandemic spotlighted how loneliness at work can take a toll on productivity.

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that loneliness contributed to making workers feel alienated, which made them feel less committed to the task at hand. That enabled workers to work less as hard compared to their peers that weren’t lonely, resulting in performance issues. Additionally, coworkers viewed these types of employees as “distant, less approachable” and that created a gap in the workplace that could hurt collaboration because loneliness can often be perceived as contagious.

“Other people’s loneliness can easily become our own because it’s relational,” said the study’s researcher. “Once the relational network gets infected, suddenly you’ve got these employees behaving strangely. In that sense, it’s not an altruistic choice for a manager or a co-worker to help out a lonely employee. It’s almost a managerial need that they need to take care of, a relational need. As a colleague, they need to reach out to an employee who feels lonely.”