by Angela Bagum, Interim Head of Nursing for Children, Young People & Families (CYAF) and Gender Services and Specialist Clinical Work Focused Practitioner (Business Development Team) for Add |Wellbeing

This Christmas, I will be looking forward to the break and spending time with my partner in our new home – despite the Covid restrictions upon us again. However, this hasn’t always been the case. As a nurse early in my career, working on inpatient units, it was the expectation that Christmas shifts would need to be filled and it was either a choice between working Christmas or New Year’s. I opted for the former, but more than often I would be working late Christmas Eve and or Christmas Day. Depending on the ward, it could feel at times quite sad and lonely. However, as nurses on shift, we would sometimes rally together to make our own Christmas, providing a sense of family – which I didn’t always have to greet me on my return home. There is a sense that we should all be with family and enjoying a merry time. The reality is that for a lot of us, it becomes an annual reminder of how alone we really are. Last year, I knew friends who for the first time spent Christmas alone, not wanting to affect or infect vulnerable family members with Covid. It seemed that the nation, in a strange way, was experiencing a sense of collective isolation brought upon us due to restrictions. Not wanting to put others at risk, festive socials were cancelled and this year we are hearing the same, restaurant group bookings being cancelled because people are concerned about how infectious this variant is following government updates. Once again, it may see many of us spending Christmas alone or in much smaller groups then we imagined.

In 2017, Age UK published the figure that just under 1 million older people would be alone for Christmas that year.  However, it is not just older people, as my experience will testify to. The charity Stand Alone, who support estranged families found that 1 in 5 families will be affected by estrangement and over 5 million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member. The charity highlight the stigma that is associated with isolation, which may prevent people from seeking support. The concern, of course, is that ongoing isolation and our sense of loneliness can impact upon our mental health. As clinical staff, it is something we would have to factor in with our clients; the knowledge that for some, this time of the year is particularly difficult in that it re-invites some difficult early traumatic experiences and in some cases this would result in further deterioration of mental health.

 In 2017, Samaritans responded to 400,000 calls to their helpline over Christmas. They identified that one in three of these calls were for loneliness, affecting both young and old. Christmas can highlight the absence of connection, when so many others are connecting to their loved ones.

For so many people, Christmas can trigger childhood memories, reveal difficult family dynamics or simply be a painful reminder that they have no family. For some it may actually be protective not to spend time with family members over the period as they have identified a family situation as having a negative impact on their own mental health. In some cases, others may feel they are burdening friends by letting them know they are alone- or not being invited, can evoke feelings of rejection.

It can be said the workplace offers not just routine and structure but a kind of corporate family in which we can spend time with. The workplace environment shutting shop over Christmas can leave the sense of one having to be with themselves – which, for some, can mean very little contact with the outside world, especially when there is now the impetus to work from home

Tips on how to get through a lonely Christmas:

Even in a virtual setting, take a moment to look around your workplace and see how people are feeling about Christmas this year. As a Mental Health Nurse Specialist for the workplace and as a human being who knows too well the feelings of isolation, I can recommend:

  • If working from home, a virtual check-in just to catch up and think about what we might be doing that may not involve others but means we are taking care of ourselves
  • Getting out, just to be in the presence of other people either meeting small group outside or one other person if that feels comfortable which we appreciate is not always easy.
  • Visiting local parks, to get out and be in nature in a more mindful way, can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression, which may feel exacerbated when there’s a pressure to socialise but instead, can happen in a more organic way. This has been well documented through The Wildlife Trusts research with the BBC on loneliness and nature
  • Importantly, for those affected this Christmas, there are services (listed below) who can be contacted so as to speak with someone about how you might be feeling and not to hold it all in. If there is a prolonged concern of isolation that maybe affecting a person’s ability to function and/or, they are worried about their mental health then importantly, they can attend their GP to access mental health service support and out of hours, seek emergency support through Accident and Emergency.

Advice and support:

Samaritans free helpline: 116 123

Stand alone, supporting people that are estranged

MIND– Loneliness tips and support