Apr 28, 2021
Jonathan: Kia ora koutou. Welcome to Mahi, the disability employment podcast, brought to you by Workbridge. Particularly in New Zealand, we are recovering from the pandemic, but for many people, legacies remain, and one of those is loneliness. The disability community is one of the sector groups identified in The Helen Clark Foundation's latest report which is called Still Alone Together where loneliness is a big deal. What is the issue and what do we do about it? To talk about this issue, I'm joined by Holly Walker from The Helen Clark Foundation. Kia ora, Holly. Good to talk with you.
Holly: Kia ora, Jonathan. Thank you so much for having me.
Jonathan: What does The Helen Clark Foundation do? What's its reason for being?
Holly: We're an independent public policy think tank. We're based in Auckland, New Zealand. As you might tell from the name, our patron is former Prime Minister, Helen Clark. We're founded on the values that have grounded Helen's career through her time as both a politician and in her international career at the UN. Broadly speaking, we're interested in doing research that identifies and then looks at solutions for some of the big public policy changes facing us here in New Zealand and the world at large. We're guided by Helen's values of fairness, sustainability, and democracy. In this case, we've been looking at the issue of loneliness, how prevalent it is and what the impact of Covid-19 has been, and what some of the public policy solutions to that might be.
Jonathan: Does Helen play an active role in the topics that you choose to focus on? Does she have input into the policy process, anything like that?
Holly: She's our patron. She has oversight over the foundation as a whole but in a fairly hands-off way. Like I said, obviously, we choose our topics based on those values that have guided her career for so long and she certainly takes an active interest in the research that we're putting out but we determine those topics ourselves in partnership with some of the other organizations that we work with. In this case, my research is funded by a company called WSP which is an engineering and professional services consultancy firm, an international firm actually, but WSP New Zealand is our partner on this research.
They've got a particular interest in the built environment and how we can design our cities and towns of the future to promote social connection and encourage people to know their neighbors and things like that.
Jonathan: This was actually the second in a series of policy papers you've done on this topic, right?
Holly: That's correct, yes. In 2020, even before the pandemic hit, we had identified loneliness as an issue that we wanted to look at for that very reason, I think. It's hard to remember the before times now, but [chuckles] I think there was a growing awareness that loneliness in the 21st century was becoming a particular issue. We were interested in looking at it and looking in particular at the intersections between loneliness and the built environment. That was already on our radar as something we wanted to do some research on last year.
Then, of course, COVID hit and everybody went into lockdown and it very quickly bumped itself up the agenda of topics for us to consider because it was suddenly so immediate for people experiencing that social distancing and social isolation. We put our first report out in June of 2020. In that report, we looked at the data that was available to establish a pre-pandemic baseline for how widespread loneliness is in New Zealand and then looked at the very initial impact of the level four lockdown. That report came out in June, obviously, the lockdown was over, but it hadn't been over for very long.
We wanted to update it this year to look at really throughout the whole course of 2020 during the lockdowns themselves, but afterwards too, how this issue had been tracking and what the impact of the pandemic had been. We made a number of recommendations in our first report about how we could adopt good public policy to address this issue. We wanted to see, well, has this happened on any of those recommendations? What progress has been made? In what areas has there been not very much progress? We also included an assessment of progress against those recommendations in this update report as well.
Jonathan: It's a fascinating body of work. How do you define loneliness? You do spend some time actually defining what the problem is and the scope of this.
Holly: I think loneliness is one of those things where we all have experienced it at some point in our lives. It is a normal part of the human condition. Really what it is is an unmet need for connection. What the need is and how that need might be met will vary from person to person. We all have a different set of social needs and preferences, there's no one-size-fits-all description of loneliness in terms of the number of people you know or whether you live alone. At its core, it's about whatever our particular needs for connection are as individuals. If they are going unmet for a long period of time, we could call that loneliness.
There are a number of different ways that that can manifest or types of loneliness. For example, people may feel lonely because of the loss of a particular individual in their life, the death of a partner, the end of a relationship, perhaps the passing of a parent, or a separation from a loved one. That's one type of loneliness. There's another that is about the general level of social connectedness we have, the networks we have in our daily lives from work, from friends, from neighbors, whether they are numerous enough and of a deep enough quality to meet our social needs, or it could be a form of lacking a feeling of identity and purpose in our life.
For example, if you're unemployed or have put a lot of stock in your work as being your raison d'etre or your identity and then your work situation changes, you may feel a sense of existential loss or purposeless, which is another form of loneliness. It can take a number of forms. At its core, it's when our need for connection is not being met and its impact is quite significant. Again, short periods of loneliness are normal, but if people are spending a long time feeling like this, it's essentially putting our body into a stress response all the time which is not good for us.
It can have significant health impacts like messing with our sleep, messing with our hormones, suppressing our immune function, increasing our risk of developing various illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and have mental health and well-being impacts too like increasing our risk of depression and anxiety and in some cases, dementia. It's been documented internationally that people feel really lonely for a really long period of time. It actually has a life-shortening impact. It can shorten life expectancy. It's a really significant health and well-being challenge when we have large numbers of people feeling lonely a lot of the time.
Jonathan: Human beings are very social creatures.
Holly: Absolutely. We're wired for this. It's as fundamental as our need for warmth or for shelter, or for food. We are wired to connect with other people. We evolve to rely on other people to provide us with warmth, shelter, and food, in fact. If we feel that we've in some way been separated from our group when we don't feel that sense of belonging connection, it really can be life-threatening just in the same way that going without food and shelter can be life-threatening.
Jonathan: Just listening to you talk, it occurs to me because, of course, I've also made a contribution to this report in my capacity as Chief Executive of Workbridge. We know, we talk about the importance of employment, feeling like you have some wider purpose than yourself, that companionship that comes from having a social circle that sometimes stems from work, all those things. Just listening to you talk there reminds me too that it's really important that we make sure that we don't let what we do in our job, if we're fortunate to have one, completely define us, that it doesn't form the totality of our identity.
Holly: That's a really interesting point. I think you're absolutely right. Work can be a really important part of our identity and our sense of purpose and connection. A lot of people meet their friends, even their partners at work, so it's a really important part of our social world. We all live a fairly precarious existence and many people are just a change in circumstance away from a significant loss, whether it's a loss of employment or a bereavement. Things can change in our lives.
If we are heavily reliant on just one source of social connection and that source of social connection is taken away from us for some reason, then yes, it can absolutely throw people quite significantly if we don't also have those buses of other forms of connection, other networks that we're part of, other relationships, community. All of those things are really important for our social well-being.
Jonathan: We've talked about loneliness. Let's talk about who's particularly susceptible because you have identified groups who are particularly vulnerable. At any rate, I guess we all are depending on our circumstances that may change, but there tends to be a pattern here in terms of people who are susceptible to feeling particularly alone.
Holly: Yes, that's right. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly depending on who you are in your own circumstance, it's not always who we might think, or at least who the mainstream narrative about loneliness might encourage us to think are the most lonely. What we found in our research, which drew on both sources from Statistics New Zealand and also from a survey undertaken by Victoria University during and after the level four lockdown in New Zealand last year was that some of the groups most likely to feel lonely included disabled people, sole parents, people on very low incomes, people who are unemployed, new migrants, young people aged 18 to 24, and also some disparity between different ethnic groups.
Māori more likely to report feeling lonely quite acutely, people of Asian ethnicity more likely to report feeling lonely at least some of the time compared to Pacifica and Pākehā ethnic groups who are less likely to report feeling lonely. I guess you could say across the board, first of all, there's a lot of intersection between those groups and many people will fit into more than one of those groups of people. Then that would proportionately perhaps increase their risk of feeling lonely. Looking across that group of people or those groups of people, you could identify, some common well-being challenges that some of those groups face, low income and unemployment being one thing that some of those groups have in common. There's a really close link between our economic well-being and our social well-being. That's, I think, an important finding of this report.
Jonathan: I suppose you could argue that one of the reasons why disabled people often feel lonely is because they don't have the income, the capacity to go and be sociable, but then there are also overlaps there because there are accessibility barriers. You identify some of those too. It's particularly exacerbated during the lockdown it seems that perhaps I'm thinking that this is really research whose time has come because a lot of disabled people said to others when they were locked down for whatever it was here in New Zealand, five, six, seven weeks, welcomed to our world because this is actually what we experience on a regular basis.
Holly: I think that it's very interesting the impact of the lockdown. It's had a number of different impacts in different directions. Not surprisingly, at the overall population level, I think there was an immediate spike in people reporting feelings of loneliness when we went into lockdown. Of course, it makes sense. People were no longer able to see other people, their social network was stopped overnight. Of course, it had an impact on feelings of loneliness, but for some people for whom an existence largely based at home was already the norm, as you say, there was actually a leveling of the playing field.
I do know many disabled people who talked about actually really appreciating suddenly the normalization of, for example, being able to work at home, to participate in meetings and seminars via Zoom. Their access barriers were actually in many ways removed by the lockdown because everybody had the same access barriers and that had a real equalizing impact. That was an interesting outcome. Also, I think particularly during the lockdown itself, people were very aware of the risks of people feeling isolated and lonely and often made quite a conscious effort to connect in with each other, to stay in touch with friends and relatives via phone or online, to pop up outside and talk to the neighbors over the fence, to drop groceries to people.
There was a sense of, we're all in this together, we're going to take care of each other and keep tabs on each other. For some people who lead quite an isolated existence under normal conditions, they actually found they felt less lonely during a lockdown because of this conscious checking in that people were doing. Now, unfortunately, as we've moved out of lockdown and moved back to something like "business as normal," a lot of that has fallen away.
One of the interesting findings of this report was that for some of these groups, disabled people and sole parents in particular who really appreciated that extra support that was extended during the lockdown, actually felt even lonelier later on in the year as the lockdown was lifted and conditions returned to normal because that checking in was no longer happening, but all of the factors that made them feel isolated and alone in their lives were still there. I think one of the important takeaways for me out of our research is that we must be really careful that our COVID recovery is not leaving some people behind.
We're lucky in New Zealand we've had a really effective response to COVID-19. Our lockdown period was relatively short. We've returned quite quickly to something like our regular daily lives. Some of those groups who were already most likely to be negatively impacted by COVID may have had health compromised status and needed to stay isolated for longer, may have lost employment due to the pandemic, may have had a particularly challenging time looking after young children and trying to manage all the responsibilities of that without a partner.
Those groups of people were at risk of leaving them out of our COVID recover if we don't focus on how can we create the conditions for social connection to thrive as part of the work we do as we move out of the pandemic and look at what kind of future we want to have.
Jonathan: Looking back now, yes, it was remarkable how long we were able, as a country generally, to sustain that feeling of, there's a crisis on, we have to reach out to one another, look after one another. You normally see that in times of crisis, but not for as long as we were able to keep it going. It's not surprising we're all a little bit exhausted with that now when we have gone back to our normal grumpy self-centered selves pretty quickly.
Holly: Maybe so. You can only live in crisis mode for so long, just as it is. You can only stay in a stress response for so long. Eventually, your body will intervene and encourage you to rest in some other way. People talk about COVID fatigue, certainly talk about Zoom fatigue, all of these modes of connection that suddenly became really important came with their own cost. I certainly don't want to idealize that lockdown period, but it was interesting to note that it did in some ways remove barriers or actually encourage a greater level of social connection for some people. We should be thinking about those people as we design our policies of the future.
Jonathan: Hopefully one of those legacies might be a bit of empathy for what people who are isolated in this way are going through. You talked about, at the beginning of this, the built environment and how important it is for the built environment to be inclusive. That was the basis of the research being funded. I wonder the degree to which you think loneliness can be mitigated by online tools. Disability is obviously a really big church, but there are some people who do have challenges in physically getting out, perhaps because the location is unfamiliar and you could probably mitigate against that with those environment changes.
Sometimes the actual act of going somewhere is quite an effort. For some people, being able to congregate virtually online, do work, interaction online, that sort of thing, it can actually be preferable to face-to-face. To what extent do you think we are hardwired to be creatures that must meet face-to-face? Can these loneliness challenges be met by simply online connections?
Holly: It's a really interesting question. I think the answer is a combination of both. I think one important thing to note which is interesting and perhaps not widely known is that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. They are correlated, there are certainly increased risks of feeling lonely if you spend a lot of time on your own or live on your own, but if we go back to that definition of loneliness being an unmet need for connection, there are other ways to have your need for connection met. Someone might live alone and not experience a lot of loneliness if they feel that their connection needs are being met in other ways.
Whether that's online by phone or they just generally have a lower need for face-to-face contact, it varies from person to person. It's certainly possible to live a life of not a great deal of face-to-face contact with other people and still feel as though your social needs are being met in other ways if you have access to the right tools and, for you personally, they feel sufficient to meet your need for connection. On the other hand, some people just really, really do need that face-to-face contact with other people, physical context. There's a lot of research too about the health and well-being benefits of regular physical touch between human beings, which is really important.
I do think, ideally for all of us, it's a combination of both face-to-face contact and having other ways of finding community. We have recommendations in our report that cover both of these things. One of our recommendations is around closing the digital device because we did find that digital forms of communication were so critical during the pandemic and continue to be in enabling us to stay connected and also to find community and connection perhaps with people who are geographically quite far apart from us but share other characteristics or identities with us.
Online tools are amazing for that, but there's still a huge degree of disparity and inequality with access to both digital devices that are accessible but also affordable high-speed internet connections. A lot of people still don't have those. It's quite easy to feel as though everybody has access to the internet in the 21st century, but that's not the case. There's certainly policy things we can be doing to extend digital access. I think that's an important response to loneliness as well as making sure that our physical environment meets the highest standards of accessibility so people can get out, meet other people, find spaces that are accessible to them where they can meet with others.
That's really critical, as well as just really basic things like making sure that people have enough money because it's really hard to even think about meeting your social needs when you're living day-to-day in that toxic stress that poverty can create, really where you can't even get your head above water and you're trying to meet your daily survival needs. Your income is not sufficient for that. It's hard to prioritize social well-being if that's your daily reality. We need to really address income, encourage and support people into employment whenever possible, make sure the physical environment is as accessible and as friendly as possible but also make sure people have access to online tools so they can stay connected in other ways as well.
Jonathan: Does The Helen Clark Foundation have positions first on whether the internet is a human right and whether it should be funded accordingly, and second on universal basic income, which is something that bubbles away, particularly with some political parties here?
Holly: On that second one, our preferences for a guaranteed minimum income, which is a similar concept but not identical to the idea of a universal basic income. The idea would be that when you look at our income support policies overall, there should be an amount that's calculated to be the minimum that you could live on to lead an economically stable life, you can live with dignity, you can participate in society, you can have enough free time to spend with family and connect with others as well as be active in your community and be active in employment if that's possible.
I can't tell you that dollar figure off the top of my head, but the idea would be that we identify that dollar figure and then we align all of that income support policy so that whether someone was living on a benefit doing a combination of receiving state support and doing some paid employment, or working full-time, the minimum wage, the benefit rates are at such a level that everybody meets that guaranteed minimum income. I think that's a really important step towards enabling everybody to live with dignity. Similar to but less costly than a universal basic income.
Then on the question of the internet, yes, I think one of the things that we've recommended in our report is that provision of a high-speed affordable internet connection should be a standard part of all social housing tenancies, and also that any government-funded disability support services should include providing internet access. That's a way into starting to think about the internet as a human right, something that we should all have access to. We do quite heavily on some research that was done by the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation a couple of years ago on closing digital divides and looked at the recommendations that they made in their report, which do encourage thinking about connection as a right.
Jonathan: I like to think we're making progress, but I do remember in the 1990s when I was doing advocacy in this field and I talked about the impact as even then the internet was having on me as a blind person and my ability to bank with dignity and read newspapers for the first time in my life independently. Somebody from a ministry I probably shouldn't name said, "Well, we're not going to give computers to blind people just so they can surf the net." It's a very dismissive kind of approach to take because it really is the difference between just independence, connection with the world and not having those things. I think if that person had been deprived of even being able to pick up The Dominion Post in the morning, they would have taken a very different view.
Holly: There can be a huge empathy gap-
Jonathan: There can.
Holly: -in choosing people's understanding of lived experience. I think it's a chicken and egg thing because the more diversity we can encourage in our workplaces and places like government ministries and departments where people who are working in those spaces have actually got an understanding of the lived experience of disability and other forms of diversity and can be making policy accordingly is so important. I think we have come a long way, but I think we still have a really long way to go. I'm sorry to hear of the experiences. Very dismissive and indicative, I think, of the distance we have yet to travel.
Jonathan: You have a number of very important recommendations we haven't touched on yet. Can you go through some of those key ones for us from the report?
Holly: Sure. Basically, we've divided our recommendations into six broad headings. We call these the policy planks of an effective response to loneliness. At the high level, these things are, make sure people have enough money, as I talked about before, close the digital divide, as we've also discussed, help communities do their magic. One of the things we identify is that it's often community-led development and self-identified goals being met by community that can really bring connection and a sense of belonging.
Funding, for example whanau ora, funding, ethnic communities to fund their own projects of their own choosing, funding disability lead spaces in communities are really important ways of creating opportunities for connection and belonging, so supporting community-led development. Creating friendly streets and neighborhoods. We talked a little bit about that before in terms of accessibility, but also there's ways that we could be designing our housing and our urban environments of the future to facilitate more social connection.
If we are talking about building apartments, make sure there's common space on every floor where people can gather and congregate, make sure there's common green space in our parks and communities that is accessible where people can spend time and talk to others. Let's create more shared paths for active modes of transport to encourage people to be outside walking and taking social modes of transport where they possibly can. Public transport, how we design our buses and trains and other forms of public transport to encourage sociability. All of these things can make a big difference.
Prioritizing those who are already lonely. This comes down to looking at those groups we've identified that are more at risk and actually targeting services and supports towards those people. The last one is investing in frontline mental health. We know that the government has invested in a new frontline mental health service. It was a centerpiece of the 2019 Well-being Budget, but the rollout of that service has been very slow and a lot of the funding that's already been committed for it has not yet been spent yet. People are crying out for the support. That really needs to be ramped up and implemented as quickly as possible.
Jonathan: If you had to pick one thing that the government should do now to really advance this cause, could you do that? Could you say this is one key thing we'd love to be advanced?
Holly: For me, I think it comes down to income. Not only from a loneliness perspective, but if we look at well-being through just about any lens you come at looking at issues of it, making sure that people have enough money is absolutely critical. As I said before, if you live on a very low income and a state of toxic stress with your survival mode every day, it's so hard to meet your own social needs but even to participate in any other form of community building. To live with dignity, basically, and to be a full member of society requires sufficient income.
Whether you come at it through a child poverty lens, whether you come at it through a disability lens, a loneliness lens, as we do in this report, or an economic lens in terms of the well-being of our whole society and people's ability to participate in the economy, it just always comes down to income. I think we absolutely have to do something. Raising core benefits immediately would be a really, really critical step that I'd love to see taken.
Jonathan: It might be that it's because I've contributed a bit to this report that I'm noticing it more carefully, but it does seem like you've got quite a bit of cut-through as we like to say in the media on this and I've noticed a few stories being run there. What typically happens is that everybody nods their head, empathizes says, "Yes, this is a great idea," and then it just fades away and if it's a physical report, it becomes a doorstop somewhere. How do you ensure or can you ensure that actually once you've come up with these positions, which are well-researched, that you can then take that public policy work and see it turned into actual public policy, actual government policy, or political party policy?
Holly: Good question. Let me just briefly say thank you very much for your contribution to the report, Jonathan, which is a really valuable one and it talks about the importance of supporting people into employment as a mode of both reducing loneliness and of course, addressing so many other economic and social issues as well. It's great to have your contribution in there. In terms of your question, I think that's part of the reason we decided to do this follow-up report to the one we did last year for exactly the reason you've identified.
It's great to put something out that makes a splash, that gets some coverage in the media, that raises awareness of the issue, but we wanted to come back and look at it again and say, what's actually changed since last year both in terms of how people are experiencing loneliness, but also those policy recommendations that we made last year? Have any of them been implemented in full or in part and what's happened? Actually circling back and looking at these things again and continuing to bring them to the public attention I think is an important part of that.
Then, of course, the other thing that we do once a report like this comes out is try to get in front of as many people as possible who have the ability or influence or decision-making power to actually address some of these things. When I get off the phone to you, Jonathan, I'm actually going to be handwriting some notes to a number of different ministers and sending them a copy of the report, inviting them to meet with us to talk about it, as we've done with some of our previous supports and had the opportunity to do that. Also, talking to you. In this context, it's not so much action for local councils, but in the context of some of our other reports.
I'm thinking of one we did last year about low traffic neighborhoods and how it's important to move towards a low emissions future where we have greater road safety and lower emissions from reducing car traffic. We've had the opportunity to get in front of councils and talk about that as well. You're right. Our main output is to write and produce research reports, but we are also very interested in then getting that research in front of the people who can make the decisions that would actually see the changes that we need because, ultimately, that's what we're here for, to try and influence, to make some real change.
Jonathan: I guess sector groups, advocacy groups, they have a responsibility too. Don't they? Because you've essentially handed them this very well-put-together research. It stacks up, it makes sense, and then they can take that research themselves and use it in their own advocacy.
Holly: Yes, absolutely. We'd love to see people do that. We'd love to hear from anyone who is interested in doing that. From time to time, we are able to partner up with other groups who are working on similar topics or join forces if we've got similar goals and similar aspirations. Reinforcing each other's voices, I think, is so important so that the message is coming and that these decision-makers from a number of different places, but yes, absolutely, we hope our research is a tool that others can use and we're really welcoming of that.
Jonathan: The report's available in a variety of formats. How do people find it so they can read this in full?
Holly: It's available on The Helen Clark Foundation website, which is just helenclark.foundation, and it's available in a variety of formats. There's a designed PDF that looks very beautiful. There's also an accessible version that is accessible to--
Jonathan: Screen readers.
Holly: Screen readers, basically.
We have an easy-read summary as well of the report that is available there. Also, as I just have done this morning, if those formats don't meet someone's particular accessibility needs, please do get in touch. You can contact us through the website and we can find a way to get the information to you in a version that is accessible to you.
Jonathan: Congratulations on this report. It feels good to be heard, I think, as a disabled person because so often people feel like they are not. To have this report on a topic that impacts so profoundly on many of us is a wonderful thing. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast to explain it.
Holly: Well, thank you so much, Jonathan, and thank you again for your contribution, as well as the one that's in there from Prudence Walker, who's the chief executive of DPA. I think it was really important to me as an able-bodied person if I'm going to be writing about and talking about these impacts that are so real for people with disability that we have that lived experience and that expertise that you and Prudence have brought to the report. Thank you very, very much.
Jonathan: That's Holly Walker from The Helen Clark Foundation. That concludes this episode of Mahi, we'll be back next month for another episode. See you then.
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