Frank Buckley, a widowed retiree, puts the kettle on after spending his second day this week doing woodwork in an old converted barn with a group of other men. His group of amateur carpenters are part of a national initiative for socially isolated Britons called – what else? – The Men’s Shed project that has opened more than 400 communal sheds for men who have retired or are unable to work due to disability or unemployment.
“It’s good because a few men get together, have a cup of tea and help each other with bits and pieces using the wood lathe and other tools,” says Mr. Buckley.
The Men’s Shed is just one way that Britons are trying to tackle the growing problem of loneliness in a country where nine million people are either always or often lonely, according to a 2017 study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross. Britain has been dubbed Europe's loneliness capital: Britons are less likely to know their neighbors than residents anywhere else in Europe, and a high proportion of the population says they have no one to rely on in a crisis.
These fraying social bonds, and the health risks associated with them, led the British government to appoint last month its first-ever minister for loneliness. The new minister, Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, will work with businesses and charities to draw up a government strategy to tackle the problem.
The ministerial post was one of the recommendations of a parliamentary commission that published its findings in December. Rachel Reeves, an opposition lawmaker who co-chaired the commission, called loneliness in Britain a social epidemic. “When the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear, we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society,” she said in a speech to announce the report.
That’s how it felt for Buckley, now 69, when his wife fell sick. In her final years, he was her sole care-giver; the couple had no children and their relatives live elsewhere. He was also struggling to adjust to retirement after losing his last job as a driver for a patient transfer service and not being able to find further work in this corner of rural Shropshire, bracketed between Wales and the industrial Midlands.
“I didn’t enjoy being unemployed. You just spend time sitting and doing nothing and you become morose,” he says. His wife encouraged him to join the woodworking group and he found that it helped, particularly after she passed in 2016 and he was home alone.
“When I lost my wife, I started going to the shed twice a week as I wanted something to occupy my time so I wasn’t just sat on my own at home. There are a couple of other people now in the same kind of situation who are bereaved and it does help to share that,” he says.
The group also does volunteer work in the community and Buckley belongs to a social club that meets for Sunday lunch.
An unhealthy problem
The problem of social isolation is more than individuals simply feeling lonely – research shows that loneliness can have detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. One study by Age UK found that nearly a third of older men who have health problems are lonely. While chronic loneliness may not have caused their health problems, other studies have found it is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as bad for you as obesity, and can increase the likelihood of an early death by 26 percent.
Britain’s economy is also feeling the pinch. A study published last year found that social isolation could cost the British economy £32 billion ($44 billion) annually. The research, commissioned by the Eden Project, based its estimate on the cost of additional health and welfare spending and of an overall loss of economic productivity in disconnected communities.
So why is the problem so much greater in the UK compared to its European peers? Edward Davies, the head of policy for the Centre for Social Justice, a right-leaning think tank, says there are many theories. One starts with the breakdown of the nuclear family in modern Britain, where 42 percent of marriages now end in divorce and where more people are choosing to remain single.
“Historically more people were in pairs, and grandparents would live with their adult children rather than living alone. There has been a big shift away from that in just a couple of generations and we haven’t quite confronted it as a society,” he says.
Another factor cited by Mr. Davies and other researchers is that British society is becoming more individualistic. Recent figures show that only 13 percent – just 2.6 million workers – are members of a union, down from nearly one in two workers in 1979. A recent surge of new members in the opposition Labour Party belies a steady, decades-long decline in British political-party membership. “There seems to be a wider disinterest in being part of something bigger but it means when life gets tough, you don’t have those structures to fall back on,” says Davies.
A respite from Brexit
Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to appoint a minister of loneliness won her a rare burst of cross-party praise and a brief respite from heated Brexit-related politicking.
The parliamentary fact-finding that led to the ministerial post was itself a reminder of that political heat: Its official name is the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Ms. Cox, a Labour MP, formed the commission in 2016 before she was murdered by a right-wing extremist in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.
It’s not just older people who struggle with social isolation in Britain. It can also affect new mothers, those caring for family members, and people with disabilities, say researchers. And that isolation is self-reinforcing as more people feel that they are struggling alone and have no one that they can turn to.
While the appointment of a minister solely for the problem of social isolation shows that the government is getting serious about it, Davies warns that it’s not just something the government can solve. It starts with something as simple as walking out the door and getting involved in the community. “We all need to play our part in helping to reduce our own and everyone else’s isolation,” he says.