Developing a systems approach to addressing loneliness with a place-based partnership
Even before a global pandemic introduced social distancing, loneliness was already a defining feature of the twenty-first century. The crippling effects of loneliness have been long understood and much quoted; as bad for individual health as 15 cigarettes a day, it has an impact not just on our overstretched health service but on society as a whole.
COVID-19 has been an amplifier and un-equaliser. Research by the British Red Cross in November 2020 showed that 39% of adults hadn’t had a meaningful conversation in two weeks, and 1 in 3 worried something would happen to them and no one would notice. Studies have also shown the disproportionate impact of loneliness on young people, women and Black and minority ethnic communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw East Sussex’s county, district and borough councils, the NHS, and the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, working together in new ways. Aligned with the vision that no East Sussex resident be left to cope alone, partners recognised the value of collaborating across organisational and geographic boundaries, especially around complex, cross-cutting social issues such as loneliness.
Collaborate was commissioned by a place-based partnership led by East Sussex County Council: The Community Wellbeing: Connected People & Places programme. The goal was to understand the nature and impact of loneliness on East Sussex residents, and to identify systemic approaches to mitigate its worst effects.
What we did
We first reviewed the emerging national evidence to get a deeper understanding of loneliness, who it affects most and how. This clarified that loneliness is distinct from social isolation, creating a clear definition of the challenge and an opportunity to reframe loneliness as connection—a more positive and less stigmatising way to open up the conversation.
We then developed a participatory, collaborative approach that used a broad range of research and engagement techniques to start conversations, generate insights and build connections. We recruited and interviewed dozens of local community activists and public and civil society organisations (from practitioners to senior leaders and politicians) to mobilise and connect local stakeholders who will carry this work forward in the future.
Based on the insights that surfaced, we co-produced recommendations and tested and reshaped them with stakeholders, creating shared ownership over the process and outcome. We then developed and launched a set of practical recommendations and insights for the partnership to take forward.
Impact and Learning
One of the important insights that surfaced through this work was that for residents to be better able to connect with each other, people and organisations across the county as a whole needed to be better connected. We uncovered a number of crucial disconnects (some between organisations and residents, some between organisations, and some between potentially complementary initiatives) undermining more connected communities. In some cases, these disconnects were the product of a lack of awareness. In other cases, it came down to lack of trust.
An important aspect of our work was to draw attention to these disconnects and demonstrate the potential of a more connected East Sussex at multiple levels—from services to social infrastructure to the policy environment—and at multiple scales, from community to county-wide. Crucially, these levels are all interrelated and the real potential lies in the opportunity for learning across different parts of the system how to nurture a more connected East Sussex.
We began to forge connections and enable some of this learning through an inclusive and collaborative engagement process. This created an opportunity for residents and partners to be heard and form relationships that are foundational for building a more connected East Sussex. This reflects the ways of working that the place-based partnership wants to embed for the long term, lasting well beyond the term of our engagement.
Collaborate has managed to pull together useful insight from a complex set of engagement and research activities in a way that has illuminated quite a nebulous topic. We now have a set of recommendations that make our way forward very clear and actionable.Tom Hook
Assistant Director Adult Social Care & Health (Planning, Performance & Engagement)