No work, no worth?

People who are unemployed can be made to feel worthless, stigmatised, unwanted and lonely. Tracey Robbins discusses how we can seek to understand the loss of identity and loneliness people can feel as a result of being unemployed, and reset the way we work together as a community to help people find a way out of loneliness and possibly, find work too.

‘Worklessness’ is a word used in the UK that’s akin to worthlessness, just as being unemployed is associated with an underclass, a section of society that is unworthy and undesirable.

Perceptions of those who are unemployed are unkind, negative and dismissive. They are often viewed with contempt from a higher moral ground, from where those who are without work are viewed with distaste, as scapegoats, scroungers, spongers. Stigmatised and demonised, the underclass in a classless society, because of a deep-rooted belief that their worklessness is a result of their personal failings.

In Australia, unemployment figures continue to rise. In America, the ranks of the unemployed now total 12.5 million people. One of them is Al Martinez, who was recently laid off from his job as a columnist. In a recent post Mr Martinez describes the “intense feelings of rejection” that accompany sudden unemployment. “I’m talking about the icy chill of loneliness,” a sentiment echoed not only in the online comments made in response to his post, but also in the conversations I have had with others during the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation Neighbourhood approaches to loneliness action research program. Some of the comments I have heard include:

“Being laid off feels like a death in the beginning.”

“Three months unemployed - I’m scared. If I didn’t have a cat, I would have maybe committed suicide. I feel hollow, lonely, and not part of society. My appetite is gone. I have trouble sleeping.”

Few can fully appreciate the psychological devastation from the experience of losing a job, with nothing on the horizon, hope and initiative gone, the years passing as you struggle in vain... All the while, questioning your self-worth, being self-conscious among family and friends, feeling you’re letting your spouse down.”

For me, and maybe for you, it is no surprise that people feel isolated, burdened and lonely when their experience is of a society that not only has no time, but also no regard for or appreciation of, the struggle that pervades their everyday life.

It is no surprise that people feel worthless and unwanted in a society that creates scapegoats and blames those less fortunate for all those wicked issues that are too complex to unpick. It is no surprise that loneliness, social isolation, stress, anxiety and depression seep into a formerly resilient human being, stripping them of their confidence, self esteem and self efficacy.

I have been there, a failure, a former shadow of my real self.

I was a teenage parent, married, then unhappily divorced, left alone to raise my daughter. I survived nine years on state benefits. I raised my child against the odds, both politically and practically. But while doing it, I felt the guilt, the shame and the loneliness that stemmed from feeling I had failed the expectations of my society.

I lost my sense of worth and identity, feeling the world of worklessness erode my own confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

In a society where we are valued for our economic contribution, where we are judged by what we do and not by who we are, is it any wonder people who ‘do nothing’ and have no paid work, feel the overwhelming presence of loneliness and isolation?

Before I go any further, let me be clear about what the term loneliness means to me and to distinguish between the terms loneliness and social isolation. People experiencing loneliness require social support, acceptance and real or extended social networks. People experiencing social isolation require practical help, time and resources.

  • Loneliness is the mismatch of the relationships we have and those we want.
  • Loneliness is our internal trigger telling us to seek company, just as thirst tells us to drink, hunger tells us to eat and tiredness tells us to sleep.
  • Loneliness describes the pain of being alone, as solitude describes the joy of being alone – loneliness is not about aloneness.
  • Loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people but you can still be lonely.

Although some people may seek solitude, very few would choose to be lonely.

Social isolation on the other hand often occurs where there is no choice but to be alone.

It is important we understand this, as many who experience unemployment also experience overwhelming feelings of loneliness, because of a great mismatch between what they have and what they want. Many who experience redundancy or who retire, long for their working world back, the connections, the structure the purpose – a sense of identity. To add to this sense of loss and loneliness, people often become socially isolated as well, unable to engage in, or even being shunned by, the society and previous networks they previously occupied.

In this instance, many find themselves grouped together with others in the same situation for peer support and solace. However, this common remedy of social support to raise spirits, improve mood, and reduce stress and anxiety is not always as soothing as is hoped. Often for someone who is unemployed, and feeling lonely and stressed, the effort of maintaining these social networks may exert an additional negative impact, because other members of their networks are also likely to be experiencing the same causes of stress, often adding to or reinforcing the sense of worthlessness.

In the UK today, the presence of unemployment as a singular – however complex – issue has faded, overshadowed by poverty. Sadly half of those people in poverty are in a working family. Work no longer offers a guaranteed route out of poverty.

This has catalysed further the debate about the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor and – you guessed it – those who are unemployed are the supposedly ‘undeserving poor’. Individual behaviours are blamed – supposed irresponsible or moral failings – as key causes of their poverty and, of course, the welfare system is deemed responsible for encouraging and supporting claimants into ‘welfare dependency’.

‘Cultures of worklessness’ and ‘troubled families’ dominate debate. The close association made between poverty and individual behaviours makes it difficult to disentangle poverty from related issues, such as unemployment or receipt of welfare.

There is very little room to consider the impact of all this on human beings; the loneliness and isolation it causes. Even those in work find the environment pressured – the lack of time to build new relationships and friendships, often long distances to travel, long hours or numerous jobs mean that there is often no time for those in work to socialise or engage with their neighbours or their communities, let alone others out of work.

The important issue for loneliness, as with unemployment, is the context and the kind of opportunities open to people. This is just as important as – if not more important than – individual behaviours and choices in addressing unemployment and loneliness, opportunity and equality of opportunity.

People who have become isolated are often excluded from the opportunities you and I may take for granted. They do not have the social networks as a safety net. We need to create opportunities that help sustain and build new social networks, relationships and – all being well – new friendships.

Reducing loneliness and isolation will help to reduce inequalities, especially health inequalities. Loneliness not only affects our mental health, but our physical health too. It is as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as dangerous as obesity and has strong links to cardiovascular disorders, hypertension and dementia.

Anyone can be lonely, even busy people. But anyone can reduce loneliness, their own or others’. As a community and as individuals we need to look at how we make every contact count; how we look after the health and wellbeing of our family and friends, our communities, colleagues and ourselves; how we give the gift of time when we lead such busy lives; how we resource prevention in hard times; how we ensure that our community assets are community hubs, used to their full potential and open to all; and how we identify loneliness and work genuinely with those are at risk of it.

Indeed it seems that working together as a community to address loneliness, and working together as a community to help people find work, may not be mutually exclusive missions for us to accept.

Tracey Robbins is policy and research manager: Neighbourhoods, at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK. This article is an edited extract of one that appeared in VCOSS Insight magazine.