I recently spoke at an event in Amsterdam and whilst there was surprised to learn that one of the biggest challenges Expats face as part of their integration into Dutch life is loneliness, isolation, and depression.

I found this surprising as Netherlands is ranked in the top 10 of happiest countries to live in when it comes to job security, work/life balance, education and healthcare (SA ranked 106 out of 156 countries).

So I started doing some digging to find that there have been multiple research studies done on the impact and effect of loneliness on us as human beings. In fact, research studies state that loneliness has the same impact on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even deadlier than obesity.

In fact, chronic loneliness can impact on our immune system, making us less resistant to stress and increasing our risk of depression.

Surprisingly, the research also reflected that over the next 5yrs, Gen Z who is the most connected when it comes to devices and social media platforms having grown up with technology which supposedly makes it easier for us to connect with others, also happens to claim to be the loneliest of generations.

Loneliness is not just isolated to one area or region, in studies done around the world reflects that the Loneliness epidemic knows no age bounds, race bounds or socio-economic bounds – it is prevalent across all classes and groups.

We live very busy lives today, often letting others perceive our life is “full,” but often we’re just going through the motions without any mindfulness, in other words we’re not fully present or conscious as to why we do the things we do – resulting in loneliness, disconnection, anxiety and burnout.

So how is loneliness measured?

Psychologist Daniel Russell developed the UCLA Loneliness Scale – it assesses how often a person feels disconnected from others and has been used in over 80% of all studies done on loneliness.

The research shows that loneliness relates more to the quality than the quantity of our relationships, in other words a lonely person feels that their relationships are not meaningful and that he or she is not understood by others.

Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people — rather it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything meaningful or that matters with anyone else. You can have lots of people around you, but if you don’t share anything of substance with them, then you’ll still feel disconnected and lonely.

Is Loneliness going to be the unforeseen enemy of the workplace of the future in the gig economy?

Co-working spaces are popping up all over the world to cater for the ever changing work environment where organisations are looking to reduce costs, one of them being brick and mortar. Other reasons are to cater for the boom in start-ups and creative communities as entrepreneurship is on the rise due to tough economic times and job reductions owing to automation and the likes.

These co-shared working spaces are supposed to provide an environment that is seen as open and collaborative, a sharing of ideas and like mindedness. But, is this really happening or are many people continuing to work in silos isolating themselves by sticking to their hot desks, sound booths or simply putting earphones in to block out the noise?

A study from BMO states that the top 3 reasons for people joining the gig economy is wanting to make extra money, wanting more work/life balance and having independence and control over their working hours and lifestyle.

There are many benefits for both the freelancer and companies in this new way of working. Freelancers usually earn more than full time employees and tend to continue to progress and learn much faster independently as they have to continuously up-skill themselves to remain relevant for their next job or project.

For organisations however, freelancers can cost up to 30% less than a regular employee as they don’t have to provide for the benefits that full time employees would qualify for such as healthcare, paid leave and retirement.

However in saying that, hiring long-term freelancers or contractors can also come with complications. The recent California and Uber/Lyft debate on whether drivers are independent contractors or, the fact that they are long-term contractors, does this now see them as equal to full-time employees and qualify them for the same perks and benefits (e.g. min wage, healthcare)?

When it comes to the gig economy, Africa holds 10.1% of the world’s freelancers and this is continuing to grow due to the current economic climate and impact on various industries and sectors whereas the U.S. has 57.3 million freelance workers, expected to grow to 86 million by 2027.

Younger generations are wanting to define their own career path and work hours joining the freelance world which leaves companies of today facing a challenge to find employees that are willing to conform to traditional employment policies and the 9-5 working life of years gone by or having to change the way they view and cater for employee lifecycles.

Millennials make up approx. one-third of freelancers state that the biggest drawback they have is feeling like an outsider. In other words not feeling like they fit in or belong to the organisation and its culture which can have a negative impact on performance and team work.

The main reason for this is that freelancers or contractors don’t usually work side by side with regular employees and therefore often miss out on informal day-to-day interactions such as coffee chats, impromptu social events and last-minute lunch meetings that cultivate relationship building and ultimately connection.

This is going to pose a big challenge to organisations going forward as to how to incorporate freelancers into their company culture that creates a sense of belonging. They will need to look at implementing incentives and benefits such as offering training, mentoring and coaching and the likes to help create a sense of community and belonging as well as supporting career development. Equally important, HR departments will also need to look at preparing employees for retirement, redeployment or redundancy, not only financially but also socially to help employees transition out of corporate life into their next life-stage or gig.

Whilst organisations need to take steps to ensure they minimize the impact of the looming loneliness epidemic, so too do individuals need to take their own steps to prevent them falling into the loneliness trap such as: getting outdoors, doing exercise, keeping busy, connecting with others, getting a pet or if necessary seeking help.

Perhaps there is some validity in those countries that have elected Prime Ministers of Happiness such as the UAE, Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela and UK?

One thing we should never underestimate is the power of human connection and the importance of sharing common interests that gives us the ability to develop meaningful connections.


Paula Quinsee is a Relationship Expert, Tedx speaker and author of self-help guides ‘Embracing Conflict’ and ‘Embracing No’. Paula works with individuals and organisations to cultivate healthy relationships in both their personal and professional arenas by focusing on emotional skills and personal growth and development. She regularly appears in the media and consulted to ‘Married at First Sight SA’ TV show. More information: www.paulaquinsee.com