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Social Connection in the Time of COVID-19

By Risa Wilkerson on March 24th, 2020

For the last few months, our team at Healthy Places by Design has been working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to coordinate collaborative learning around the soaring rates of social isolation and the profound impacts that loneliness has on health and wellbeing.

Loneliness (defined as a level of social connection that is lower than a person desires) is estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years—similar to the impact that obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes per day has on a person’s health.1 Other conditions such as depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system are also linked to social isolation and loneliness. To put that in more positive terms, being socially connected is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.2

Unfortunately, adults in America aren’t well connected. In 2004, nearly 25 percent said that they had zero people in their network with whom they could discuss important matters, up from 10 percent in 1985. In a 2018 study, more than half of adults had 1 or fewer confidants.3 Around 40 percent feel lonely on a regular basis.4

And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly shuttered the gathering places that had served as antidotes to isolation: cafes, community centers, gyms, places of worship, restaurants, and schools, among many others. Now more urgently than ever, we must find ways to stay connected to each other despite the cancellation of conferences, cultural celebrations, sports events, vacations, weddings, and other markers of social life.

Compassionate and connected communities are vital to health and wellbeing. While reducing rates of social isolation and loneliness will be much a longer-term challenge, there are things we can all do right now to mitigate loneliness during this period of “social distancing.”

To start, let’s call it “physical distancing” instead. Social connections will prove more vital than ever in the absence of physical gathering places, and there are abundant opportunities to be social even with physical distancing in place.

In our work with community-led coalitions across the country, we’ve seen firsthand (and often helped facilitate) how connection can happen virtually. Here are a few pointers from our team for strengthening relationships when we can’t be together in person.

  • Replace some telephone calls with video calls. Our geographically dispersed team often uses Zoom even for casual conversations. We benefit from seeing facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, and the calls increase our feelings of camaraderie.
  • Don’t let the screen create a barrier that wouldn’t exist if you were sitting around a table or going for a walk with colleagues. Sip your cup of coffee or tea. Dig in to your lunch on screen. Check in about their lives, including things that have nothing to do with COVID-19. And be patient with those who may be uncomfortable navigating new platforms.
  • Set up a virtual break room or enjoy a virtual lunch to socially connect. Our team has had bi-weekly virtual lunches ever since we started working remotely. It’s a great time to share jokes, updates, and recommendations for books, movies, podcasts, and more—especially when levity is needed.
  • Be as present as you would in person (or more so). Be mindful about making eye contact and showing that you’re listening (for example, by nodding or leaning in), especially when people discuss important or emotional topics.
  • Make time and space for virtual connections that have no agenda. If it’s been awhile since we’ve connected, or we’ve been laser focused on business for the last few calls, we intentionally set up a call just to catch up with our partners and each other. Strong relationships are the foundation of our work, and we know that they are valuable in and of themselves.
  • Reach out to your local peers and those in other communities who may be doing similar work. While we are all mindful not to burden others with requests as they deal with COVID-19, it’s possible that they may welcome your outreach and the chance to connect.

Finally, it is important that we express how we are coping during a time that is difficult for all of us and traumatic for many. Sharing our stories with each other not only reduces social isolation, but also increases our mental and physical health, as discussed in this podcast. Processing together will help us take collective action, which is more important than ever. As David T Hsu noted in Untethered: A Primer on Social Isolation, “There is nothing quite like the transformative experience of working together toward a greater good for breaking patterns of isolation.”

If our team can help you adopt some of the above practices, or you’d like to explore other ideas for fostering social connections, please let us know. We’re here for you.

Author
Risa Wilkerson
Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, simplicity seeker, and weekend wanderer.