Bradley Post, Managing Director at Rift Tax Refunds.
In simple terms IR35 is a test to determine whether individuals should be treated as employees or self-employed. Its full name is The Intermediaries Legislation and it came into force in April 2000 as part of the Finance Act but its recent application in the public sector is proving increasingly contentious.
Even before the latest round of changes in how the law operates, it was an uncomfortably large and bitter pill for many to swallow. The new rules around IR35 and public bodies were controversial at best when they were first announced. Now that their full effects are being felt throughout the sector, the nightmare scenarios that some were warning about seemed to have been, if anything, slightly optimistic. Here’s what’s happening, and why it matters.
On the 6th of April 2017, a new set of rules came into force that affect public bodies making “off-payroll” payments to contractors, whether directly or through agencies. Essentially, HMRC was no longer going to allow the public sector to take contractors operating through Limited Companies at their word that they were playing fair with employment status law.
From the outset, there were issues with the way the new system was playing out. Fast-forward a year, and we’re now seeing reports of literally thousands of contractors being wrongly classified and over-taxed. In some cases, it’s led to people swearing off public sector work, in others to deliberate non-compliance and the risk of legal challenges. At the heart of it all sits HMRC’s Check Employment Status for Tax (CEST) tool – which, depending on whom you ask, is either God’s gift to tax law or totally unfit for purpose.
Recent figures reluctantly released by HMRC under a Freedom of Information request show 54% of the results coming out of their CEST tool to be “negative”, meaning that that under the terms of the working relationship the contractor should be classified as an employee.
The problem is, that result doesn’t reflect the way people are actually being taxed. With HMRC breathing down their necks, hirers simply aren’t trusting CEST’s judgements. Worse still, a lot of them aren’t even trying to use it, instead making blanket decisions to class everyone as an employee.
What’s the Point of IR35?
IR35 was introduced to combat tax avoidance through ‘disguised employment’. This is where individuals work for organisations on a self-employed basis, often through an intermediary, rather than as employees even though their working conditions are the same as those of a full time employee.
Organisations were happy with this arrangement, benefitting from significant savings due to not having to pay employers’ NICs or offer any employment rights or benefits to the self-employed contractors. Individuals were happy as they could provide their services through their own companies and have more control over their take home pay by distributing profits as dividends for the National Insurance and tax benefits. They could also split ownership of their company with family members to hit lower tax bands.
HMRC, however, was not happy with this cosy arrangement, having calculated that up to £400m a year is slipping through its fingers each year from “bogus self-employment”.
Contractors meanwhile are reporting getting caught up in issues such as paying employer’s National Insurance contributions on top of standard employment taxes or suffering 25% reduction in take home pay as a result of having their employment status reclassified.
Changing the Game
Under the old rules, contractors with their own Limited Companies were responsible for working out if IR35 applied to them. For public sector contracts, that responsibility has now shifted. Under the new rules, it’s either the public body itself that has to make the IR35 decision, or the agency involved if there is one. As it turns out, this was how IR35 was supposed to work in the first place, back when it was first talked about in 1999. In fact, it was a backlash against that rule that saw the burden moved onto the contractor’s company instead.
If a public body decides that IR35 applies, then the individual will be taken onto payroll as an employee and the body itself starts taking tax and National Insurance payments out of the contractor’s pay at source. The CEST tool is supposed to make these judgements simple and accurate. Of course, even if CEST performs infallibly, it can only ever be as reliable as the information it’s been given to work with. HMRC say they’re happy to stand by CEST’s results, although they’ve stopped short of making that compulsory for the public bodies using it – and left a little wiggle room for themselves as well.
Theory vs. Practice: What Went Wrong?
The term “fiasco” seems to be flying about a bit at the moment, whenever IR35 rears up its head. Basically, a lot of public bodies felt they hadn’t had enough preparation time or support to take on their new legal responsibilities. Honestly, IR35 was never a well understood or consistently applied piece of legislation in the first place, and the new rules have done nothing to fix that.
Public bodies now finding themselves between IR35 and a hard place have been making difficult decisions under pressure, which is leading to problems beyond just simple assessment mistakes. TfL, for instance, reacted with a knee-jerk safety play by banning off-payroll payments to Personal Service Companies altogether. Other bodies have either asked contractors to operate as if they were within IR35 or via an umbrella company. Worse still, there’s plenty of evidence of blanket judgements being made, Essentially, public bodies are simply assuming IR35 applies in all cases, hence the thousands of contractors being overtaxed.
So the next question is, what happened to CEST? Well, it turns out that in some cases it’s simply being ignored. Faced with the legal ramifications of getting the decision wrong, some public bodies are overruling CEST and declaring that IR35 applies. The NHS and MOD have both already been caught making these blanket assessments and now face considerable litigation risk because many contractors have been wrongly classified.
People just don’t trust the CEST tool enough to risk relying on it – and it turns out they might be right not to. For one thing, it appears to ignore the important concept of Mutuality of Obligation altogether. That means it’s going to wrestle uncomfortably with edge-cases – for instance, contractors who could theoretically have someone else do the work, even though there are practical reasons why they wouldn’t. More to the point, it seems like HMRC simply assumes that MOO always exists in contractor agreements, which simply isn’t true.
The IR35 meltdown has had a number of direct and knock-on effects. Many contractors are raising their rates to cover the extra tax they’re paying. Others have simply refused to take on public sector work, leading to project delays or outright cancellations.
Getting caught up in IR35 does carry with it some expectation of accompanying employee rights. Contractors who aren’t getting those could well be in a position to launch legal challenges. There’s no specific HMRC appeals process covering this at the moment, but the situation is continuing to develop and various options might start to bear fruit. Employment tribunals might be used to claim that wage deductions have been made unlawfully, for instance.
Keep in mind that IR35 assessments are supposed to be conducted on an individual basis through CEST. As things stand, only about half of assessments have gone through any compliance tests at all. In fact, CEST was a factor in just 24% of assessments made – partly because of blanket decisions and partly because the tool wasn’t ready when the assessments took place. In an environment that relies on voluntary compliance – and where HMRC simply doesn’t have the firepower to police the whole system effectively – what’s developing is a shocking lack of trust. That’s a backdrop against which a torrent of legal challenges could take place.
HMRC’s Reaction: What Do they Say?
CEST, according to HMRC, is “as good as the data fed into it”. They say they believe that it gives a reliable outcome 85% of the time, and is “a perfectly good tool and supports IR35 compliance.”
Honestly, from HMRC’s point of view, the CEST roll-out has been pretty much a success. Of course, the only way they seem to measure that is in how much additional revenue it pulls in. The thing is, the raw numbers don’t tell the full story here. Since wrongly overtaxing contractors has the same effect, it’s thin evidence at best that actual compliance is being boosted.
In reaction to this a number of contractor websites are now sharing information on “how to pass the IR35 check” using the CEST tool, although surrounded with many warnings about the dangers of “contriving” a pass and that HMRC will issue status challenges if it believes an individual deliberately answered questions incorrectly.
On top of that, there’s also the question of how far CEST is trusted by HMRC itself. Although they publicly stand by the tool, they’ve quietly outlined a couple of situations where they can challenge its results. Obviously, if they think the information put into it was inaccurate, they reserve the right not to be bound by the assessment it came out with. There’s been quite a lot of discussion over what that would look like in practice, but the bottom line is that it’s being widely seen as a less-than-ringing endorsement of CEST. That shaky faith only underlines the general concern around the tool, considering the significant gap between the number of “does not apply” results it’s been churning out and the number of people being filed under IR35 anyway.
If the new IR35 system’s goal was to clamp down on non-compliance, it’s hard to call it an unqualified success. If anything, while tax revenue has risen, the door’s been opened on a whole new kind of non-compliance – this time on the part of hirers. Meanwhile, HMRC’s upbeat outlook has a lot of people more worried than ever about a private sector roll-out – perhaps as soon as 2019. If that did happen, it could mean some upheaval for contracts and projects already in progress. Judging from the continuing turmoil in the public sector, it’s going to take careful consideration and planning to avoid falling down the same rabbit-hole. Private sector hirers will need to understand what it would do to their costs if contractors started raising their rates, or what it would mean for their projects if contractors simply refused to accept an IR35 judgement.
At the same time, private organisations will face the same legal threats and consequences as public bodies. They’ll find themselves under the same temptation to deliver blanket assessments, and open to the exact same challenges and push-back from contractors affected. We’ve seen, and continue to see, all this happen in the public sector, with hirers, contractors and HMRC all having points to make and corners to fight. What we haven’t seen yet is a real solution to all three sides of that equation.
Rule one of this new game, naturally, is reaching legal compliance. Companies need to understand that short-cutting individual assessments isn’t the safe option it appears to be, and contractors have to accept that cheating the taxman is the bad idea it always was. If the new system hits the private sector as many expect, it’ll take effective guidance and comprehensive support from advisers to defuse the ticking IR35 timebomb – or at least achieve a more controlled detonation than the public sector did.
Trust matters more than ever in an uncertain world
By Zac Cohen, COO, Trulioo
Trust in the time of COVID-19
Perhaps more than ever before, retail and investment banks the world over face a pivotal moment in their evolution, as banking transitions from a digital-first towards a digital-only landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic has put severe restrictions on traditional face-to-face or high street banking and forced sections of society that had previously been resistant to or unable to access digital banking to make the shift. This understandably brings with it significant anxiety and fear.
For an industry that has been striving to rebuild consumer confidence since the global financial crisis of 2008, COVID-19 presents a huge challenge. It needs to foster trust at a time when the world is facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and stands on the brink of an even more severe global recession.
Without doubt, a thriving digital economy will be critical for the global economy to bounce back quickly and strongly from COVID-19. Therefore building online trust has become critical to our very future.
A billion reasons to protect customers
The global banking system processes more than a billion transactions every day, from transfers and domestic and international payments, to loan approvals and the creation of new accounts. And each one of these transactions represents an opportunity for some sort of financial crime, whether that’s money laundering, identity theft, bribery or the financing of terrorism.
The global pandemic has only served to accentuate this level of risk, with new threats emerging on the back of COVID-19, and bad actors looking to exploit new opportunities. In particular, online fraudsters are looking to target people who are using digital services for the first time as a result of the pandemic, often the most vulnerable groups in our society such as the elderly.
Research that we recently conducted in the UK and the U.S. found that concerns about online security are higher within financial services than in any other sector, with more than half of people (51%) reporting that they are ‘very concerned’ about identity theft when using financial services sites.
Crucially, 90% of people believe that banks have a responsibility to reduce cybercrime through whatever identity verification is necessary.
Building trust from day one
Of course, customers want online banking services to be responsive, intuitive and fast, but it’s important to recognise that, first and foremost, people want to know that their money and their personal data are safe.
Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) practices are now essential in enabling banks to not only identify each individual customer, but to build trust across the digital ecosystem more broadly.
Identity verification technology during the onboarding process enables a bank to demonstrate to its customers that it is taking their security seriously from the very outset of the relationship. First impressions count — more than three quarters (77%) of consumers claim that the account opening process can ‘make or break’ their relationship with a financial services brand.
Banks simply cannot afford anything other than optimal onboarding and identity verification – fail to deliver this and trust is immediately eroded and in many cases, the customer walks away.
On the other hand, where banks do succeed in demonstrating their commitment to security during these first engagements, delivering a fast, secure and seamless account creation process, they are able to develop a more meaningful relationship with their customers. As many as 84% of consumers report having greater trust in financial services brands that use real-time identity verification during the onboarding process and 71% are more likely to share more personal data.
A layered approach to identity verification
In order to provide first-class onboarding processes and establish trust at the outset of the customer journey, banks need to ensure they can deliver relevant and compliant identity checks for customers, dependent on their geography and the type of service or product that they are looking to access. They need to move beyond a ‘one size fits all approach’ to identity verification, which can lead to cumbersome or unnecessary checks on the one hand, and increased risk on the other.
This is why a digital identity network is so powerful. This is essentially a marketplace of hundreds of data sources, verification processes and tools that leverage network data intelligence to verify and authenticate identities online.
This marketplace approach lets businesses get a more holistic view of risk and then apply whichever verification layers are needed to provide assurance and build trust.
For example, a bank may only need to perform a basic KYC check when onboarding a customer with an established government ID number or driving license. If that same customer then wants to take out a loan, the bank would need to run other verification checks to create a higher level of assurance. And if the bank wants to onboard a customer whose only form of digital identity is a name tied to their mobile phone number, it would likewise build up assurance through multiple verification and authentication layers — for instance, ID document verification, which captures images from a person’s ID document and assesses its validity, combined with biometric authentication, which compares a selfie photo (taken and sent through the mobile phone) with the photo on an ID document.
With such a layered approach to identity verification, banks have complete flexibility and choice to apply the most appropriate identity checks at every stage of the customer journey, meaning that they can manage and optimise customer experience while minimising risk and ensuring compliance against a rapidly changing regulatory backdrop.
Building a global ecosystem of trust for the digital economy
To build and maintain online trust in such a complex and diverse environment is extremely challenging for banks.
Indeed, despite rapid digitisation across all sectors and regions, the internet continues to suffer from a lack of a critical identity layer that would solve many of these complex problems. While there are layers of protocols and methodologies for transporting data over networks, there is no protocol for transporting assurance. In online transactions, then, there is no standardized way to establish that an individual is who they say they are — the essence of identity.
Clearly this needs to change in order to drive trust, digital access and financial inclusion.
A digital identity network provides banks with the assurance they need in these turbulent times, protecting both themselves and their customers from fraud and delivering seamless customer experiences. In particular, it allows banks to enter new markets and reach new customers who have previously been marginalised or excluded from the digital economy, with confidence. In this way, digital identity can become a great equalizer, enabling more people to access and enjoy the benefits of a digital economy, built on trust.
Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation
We believe the limited representation of Black voices in key decision-making processes prevents companies from reaping the benefits of a diverse workforce. It also exposes companies’ reputations to allegations of discrimination, as shown by recent calls on social media to boycott certain businesses after apparently racist behavior of employees were captured on video and shared. As such, we believe companies need to be deliberate in how they recruit, hire, and develop Black talent if they want to achieve a sustainable and diverse workforce, thereby improving ESG performance.
As part of our social assessment in the ESG Evaluation, we assess how effective a company is at developing a productive and inclusive workforce. Key indicators include employee retention and turnover rates, labor standards, pay, benefits, and rewards. We also assess whether fair labor standards are entrenched across the value chain. Moreover, we evaluate an entity’s preparedness to respond to long-term risks and opportunities, including from changing demographics and social patterns. We assess the extent to which decision-making demonstrates the company’s commitment to its long-term strategy and sustainability, as well as its success at building an inclusive workplace culture. These practices are particularly important given the presence of systemic racism, which continues to disadvantage Black people in corporate environments, particularly in the U.S.
U.S. workplaces have yet to achieve equal opportunity for people of different races, and policies have so far not fully addressed the widespread issue of racism. According to the Center of Public Integrity and the Washington Post, from 2010 to 2017, one million discrimination complaints were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Office Commission. More than 30% of these cases related to racial discrimination.
Labour Market Outcomes Are Rooted In Systemic Racism
The Black community has long been subject to civil and human injustices that have contributed to a vicious cycle of low educational attainment, high unemployment, and concentrated poverty. This has made it difficult for Black people to enter the workforce, advance in higher wage work, and accumulate generational wealth. Poverty serves as a systemic hurdle to Black employees because it creates barriers to higher educational attainment, thereby limiting their ability to procure employment and financial opportunities that would enable wealth accumulation. In 2018, the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that Black Americans have the second-highest poverty rate in the U.S. (after Native Americans, another highly marginalized group). The study also highlighted a striking wealth disparity; while the median net worth of a white household in 2016 was $103,000, for Black households it was only $9,200 (see chart 1).
Yet, structural hurdles and enduring biases have also historically disadvantaged Black jobseekers, regardless of educational attainment. In the U.S., only 31% of Black employees are in management or professional positions, and a low proportion is in upper management positions (see chart 2).
Black Employees are largely underrepresented in management and professional occupations
Educational attainment of the labor force, age and above in the U.S.
What’s more, Black employees are often held to higher standards than their white counterparts. A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black workers receive extra scrutiny in the workplace, leading to lower wages, slower promotions, and sometimes even job loss. This legacy may also create an additional barrier to career advancement, which is apparent in the low proportion of Black employees in upper management positions. Of the Fortune 500 companies, Black employees only account for 3.2% of executive and senior management and only 0.8% of CEOs (four in total) are Black (see chart 3).
Diversity And Inclusion Policies Are Only The First Step
In our opinion, D&I programs are an important mechanism for improving racial equity in the workplace. They aim to link a company’s strategies, mission, and business practices in a way that supports demographic differences among talent and enables an environment in which all employees are empowered to contribute their unique views and perspectives. As D&I programs have evolved, they’ve begun to encompass initiatives such as targeted recruitment, diversity education and training, career development, mentoring, and grievance procedures. Done well, D&I programs offer several business benefits, from improved productivity to innovation, which help boost a company’s ESG performance by helping it anticipate changing consumer preferences and consumption patterns.
Several studies have investigated the link between diverse workforces and a firm’s financial performance. According to a 2020 McKinsey & Co study, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to show financial returns that exceed the national industry median. Another study by sociologist Cedric Herring, during his time at the University of Illinois, Chicago, found that companies with the highest racial diversity were able to generate nearly 15x more sales revenue than firms with the lowest levels of racial diversity. Herring suggests that racial diversity is the most important predictor of a company’s competitive positioning, and a better indicator of sales revenue and customer attainment than a company’s size, years in business, and overall employee headcount. Diversity has also been linked to increased innovation potential. Studies show that diversity supports, enhanced creativity, more informed decision-making, increased capacity for innovation, improved customer acquisition, stronger revenue-generating potential, and better talent management.
Analyzing Diversity Remains A Challenge
Where available, we analyze a company’s ethnic diversity metrics as one indicator for a diverse workforce. Businesses tend to focus mainly on the workforce composition and on recruiting employees from different identity groups, including race, gender, age, culture, cognition, and education. Social equality activists are increasingly demanding that companies release diversity statistics, thereby holding them accountable for persisting race gaps.
Although transparency practices are improving, the availability of data is a persistent issue. According to the U.K.’s Business in the Community (BITC) Race at Work 2018 Scorecard report, only 11% of employers report ethnicity and pay data. In France, a race-neutral policy approach to education and employment stands in contrast to that in other European countries. It is illegal for employers or institutions in France to ask about someone’s race or ethnicity. The intent of this was to avoid discrimination. However, in 2006, more than 25 years after the 1978 law prohibiting the collection of ethnic data, a poll by research company TNS-Sofres showed that more than half of France’s black adults said they had experienced racial discrimination. Furthermore, companies more frequently report strictly on percentages of minority employees without commenting, directly or otherwise, on the positions they occupy. This can mask some disparities in terms of job level, promotions, or lack of diversity in certain roles.
We also take into consideration companies’ strategies to increase diversity including quotas, targets, or affirmative action policies. Over the past few years, several European countries have proposed or implemented diversity quotas for boards of companies, principally to increase female participation. The U.S. state of California followed suit in 2018, while legislation is pending in other states. Although still controversial, quotas have helped increase the number of women on boards. Similar policies on ethnic diversity are largely missing. In the U.K., the 2017 Parker Review set a voluntary target for FTSE100 boards to have at least one director from an ethnic minority group by 2021. The Review’s 2020 update shows some progress but not full compliance with the recommendations.
Regardless of the approach a company takes to increase workforce diversity, it is clear that quality data is a necessary ingredient of an effective diversity strategy. As such, we believe transparency at all levels of the organization is imperative for companies to solidify the trust and loyalty of their employees, suppliers, and shareholders. In turn, this will help boost productivity and strengthen the potential for innovation, thereby supporting ESG performance.
The Emphasis Must Be On Inclusion
Recruiting ethnic minorities does not necessarily translate into an environment that’s free of discrimination, allowing each employee an equal opportunity to advance. In our opinion, employers with a culture that tolerates discriminatory practices and microaggression are vulnerable to productivity lapses, decreased innovation, and lower creativity. Therefore, we believe the success of D&I initiatives appears to hinge on the inclusion side of the equation, which should ensure employees feel their contributions are appreciated and full participation is encouraged. According to author and inclusion strategist Verna Myers, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at
Netflix, “Diversity is about being invited to the party. Inclusion is about being asked to dance.” Analyzing inclusion practices could provide better insight into how companies manage more covert forms of discrimination associated with microaggression. In a U.S. national survey of over 3,700 office workers conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 58% of black respondents said they have encountered racism at the workplace. According to the NORC, workplace prejudice often shows up in subtle ways, through microaggression, typically during employee interactions through comments that proliferate Black stereotypes. Examples include referring to Black employees as intimidating, or unprofessional because of their hairstyles, thus creating a situation in which these employees are perceived as “not right” for the job. Such a toxic environment can go undetected by senior management, particularly when people of color are underrepresented at the workplace and in management positions. Many instances of discrimination also likely go unreported, making it even more difficult to expose covert forms of racism in corporate culture. In some cases, microaggression could ultimately result in higher staff turnover rates, one of the factors that informs a company’s Social Profile in our ESG Evaluation.
Many corporate leaders have committed additional resources to D&I programs in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. However, the success of these programs lies in how they resonate with employees. Literature on this topic suggests that achieving true inclusion requires a shift in the organizational culture to acknowledge the value of different backgrounds, expose conscious and unconscious biases, and create an atmosphere of respect and empathy. Managers, in particular, play a crucial role in employee development and are therefore important stakeholders in supporting racial inclusion. However, many are not necessarily inclined to reflect on or talk about racial discrimination, and without a business culture that fosters inclusion, meaningful change is unlikely to result.
Companies have started promoting conversations with Black employees to better understand their experiences, which we believe is a starting point. Ultimately, achieving a sustainable diverse workforce and addressing system racism will require continued leadership and accountability. A 2018 Boston Consulting Group study of more than 1,700 companies in eight countries, across different industries and sizes, found that five key factors help diversity to flourish:
- Participative leadership: managers support employee contributions;
- Strategic priority: top management and the CEO clearly demonstrate support for diversity; – Frequent communication: free and open communication is encouraged within teams;
- Culture of openness to new ideas: employees feel that they can express their perspectives without fear of retaliation; and
- Fair employment practices: employees with equal roles achieve equal pay, and companies enact robust anti-discrimination policies.
Looking To The Future
The Black Lives Matter movement has ignited a broader awareness of racism in society that has put the corporate sector in the spotlight. We believe companies’ diversity track records will be increasingly scrutinized, making a diverse and inclusive workforce a reputational imperative. In our view, more corporate entities will treat the challenge of workplace diversity as they would any other existential risk, and therefore gather the right information, including opting into voluntary diversity initiatives, to make the most informed choices.
A Call To Action: The Race At Work Charter
In collaboration with the U.K. government, the BITC established the 2018 Race at Work Charter detailing five actions all employers, regardless of sector, could undertake to further support diversity and inclusion. Since the Charter’s inception, more than 100 companies have added their signatures, including the National Grid, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank. By joining this initiative, companies are committing to taking meaningful action against discrimination in the workplace. The five actions are to:
- Appoint an executive sponsor for race.
- Report ethnicity data metrics and monitor progress.
- Commit, at the Board level, to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying.
- Clearly state that promoting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all managers.
- Take meaningful action to support the career progression of ethnic minorities.
The success of a company’s D&I efforts will be reflected in several indicators, including: the proportion of Black employees in the workforce overall, also in management and leadership positions; and the pay gap between employees in similar roles. Large, technologically advanced companies will likely be among the first to back their D&I commitments with meaningful targets and report regularly on progress. In the end, an effective, inclusive framework that supports long-lasting diversity and ESG goals depends on sound communication and ongoing commitment of employees at all levels of the organization.
- Environmental, Social, And Governance: Why Corporations’ Responses To George Floyd Protests Matter, July 23, 2020
- The ESG Pulse: Social Factors Could Drive More Rating Actions As Health And Inequality Remain In Focus, July 16, 2020
- Environmental, Social, And Governance Evaluation Analytical Approach, June 17, 2020
- Environmental, Social, And Governance: How We Apply Our ESG Evaluation Analytical Approach: Part 2, June 17, 2020
- How We Apply Our ESG Evaluation Analytical Approach: Part 2, June 17, 2020
- People Power: COVID-19 Will Redefine Workforce Dynamics In The Post-Pandemic Era, June 4, 2020
- The ESG Lens on COVID-19, Part 2: How Companies Deal with Disruption, April 28, 2020
- COVID 19: A Test Of The Stakeholder Approach, April 21, 2020
- The ESG Lens On COVID-19, Part 1, April 20, 2020
- How To Navigate The ESG Risk Atlas, April 11, 2019
- How We Apply Our ESG Evaluation Analytical Approach, April 10, 2019
- The ESG Advantage: Exploring Links To Corporate Financial Performance, April 8, 2019
- https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_uk/news/2020/02/ey-parker-review-2017-report-final.pdf – https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_uk/news/2020/02/ey-parker-review-2020-report-final.pdf
What is loneliness and how can you manage it?
By Iris Schaden Your Business and Personal Coach
A mere century ago, almost no one lived alone. Today, many do and it is not unusual. The recent lockdowns and isolation periods have amplified feelings of loneliness. But why do we feel lonely? Why do our bodies experience social pain? Learn about what we can do to improve our situation, prevent chronic loneliness and minimise the tremendous impact it has on our health.
Solitude and choosing to be alone can be bliss. Over the last sixty years the number of people living alone has increased in developed countries by more than 50 percent. In countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, it is very common for people to live alone. But this does not translate into higher levels of self–reported loneliness. Many people have friends or family they can interact with on a regular basis.
However, it is important to recognise that this choice is different to loneliness, which can be a state of profound distress. Loneliness is a purely subjective and individual experience that can be felt by anyone, no matter their social, educational, gender or age demographic. Humankind are social creatures by nature – we struggle without it – and social connections are important to our health and emotional wellbeing.
Loneliness is a problem when we feel that no place is home; when we are in a group and we still feel social separation; when we spend time with our family but we feel like we don’t belong; or when we lose a relationship and struggle to adjust. It is a growing phenomenon in modern times, a by-product of our individualism, long-distance study and career opportunities or time-consuming work commitments.
The pandemic, with its required isolation and social distancing, has added additional stress to many households, but feelings of loneliness or adverse effects of social isolation are particularly prevalent in one-person households and young people aged 12–25. According to a study by VicHealth, even before COVID-19 young adults and adolescents reported high levels of loneliness, social isolation, social anxiety and depressive symptoms. Additionally, it is men who tend to report higher levels of loneliness than women.
Reported loneliness is on the rise. In 2017 and 2018 former US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared ‘an epidemic of loneliness,’ and the UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness. In these two countries, one in five adults reported that they often or always feel alone; in Australia, it was one in four adults. And this was before COVID-19, which makes us realise the mental and emotional impact lockdown has on individuals.
What happens to our bodies when we experience loneliness?
Neuroscientists, such as John Cacioppo, identify loneliness as ‘a state of hypervigilance whose origins lie among our primate ancestors and in our own hunter-gatherer past’. Our ancestors needed to belong to an intimate social group to survive. Cacioppo explains that our bodies respond to being alone, or being with strangers, as though we were in a dangerous situation.
Separation from other people (the group) triggers a fight-flight-or-freeze response and we feel social pain. While physical pain is primarily a sensory experience, social pain is the emotional state that comes from the distress of being lonely. Like the bodily sensation of hunger, it alerts us to a need, but instead of food the need is social interaction.
Loneliness generates anxiety: our breathing quickens, our heart races, our blood pressure rises and we struggle to sleep or sleep well. If we don’t pay attention, over time we start to act more fearful, defensive and self-involved. All of these actions drive others away and tend to stop those experiencing loneliness from doing what would benefit them the most: reaching out to others. It is a vicious cycle and one that is especially challenging for older and younger individuals.
Tactics to help cope with feelings of loneliness.
To belong is to feel at home in a place or situation where you feel included, comfortable and connected with others. In his assessment, Vivek H. Murthy wrote, ‘To be at home is to be known … You can feel at home with friends, or at work, or in a college dining hall, or at church, or in Yankee Stadium, or at your neighbourhood bar. Loneliness is the feeling that no place is home.’ Having relocated to different cities and countries and re-establishing my life over and over again, I can certainly say that loneliness can be a challenge.
How can we combat the feelings of loneliness and the anxiety that comes with it, before it becomes chronic and we find ourselves even more isolated over time?
The first step in moving forward is acknowledging how you feel. Give those feelings a name with a specific timeframe; for example, today I feel alone or since I’ve been in lockdown, I have felt alone or since I lost my partner, I feel disconnected and lost. By doing this, we focus on the present and do not label our entire existence as lonely.
My personal strategy is to go outside if the loneliness gets too ‘heavy’; connect with other people through looks and smiles (even under a face mask our eyes can smile); call friends and family regularly; or schedule a brunch or glass of wine with friends (in person or video chat).
Practising random acts of kindness and gratitude, for others and ourselves, is another very effective and very positive way of bringing us back into the present moment and improving our overall wellbeing. Energy flows where our focus goes. It takes effort and sometimes it is indeed easier to just give in and watch a light-hearted movie on the couch. And that’s fine too!
If you are ever experiencing loneliness, I recommend exercising your social muscles and also seeking support. Remember that your feelings are normal as we are biologically fine-tuned to being with and interacting with others. However, you will need to make changes to avoid jeopardising your health. Once loneliness becomes chronic it becomes self-sustained and you will begin exhibiting defensive behaviour. As a defence mechanism, loneliness makes you assume the worst of others and you (your brain) become hypersensitive to social signals that might be interpreted as hostile towards you, when in reality people might just be trying to help you.
Large studies have shown that feeling lonely has a tremendous impact on your health: it can make you age quicker, cause dementia to advance faster, weaken your immune system and lead to anxiety and depression. Many people turn to substance abuse which only serves to numb the symptoms, rather than treat the source. And while you can find so much information online, knowing is not enough. Remember that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness but one of strength. So please reach out to your network, talk to your health professional or get in contact with me.
There are different ways to improve your overall wellbeing. Let’s discuss.
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