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With APIs at the Heart of Insurance, Why Their End-to-End Security is Vital

With APIs at the Heart of Insurance, Why Their End-to-End Security is Vital 1

By Olaf van Gorp, Perforce Software

The explosion of application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable digital transformation and open finance continues to escalate. APIs are the connectors, the ‘glue’ that connects services of all kinds. They are a fundamental part of the digital revolution that is changing the world right now. Many financial sectors can benefit from this revolution, including insurance.

In its excellent document: “Digital disruption in insurance: cutting through the noise”, McKinsey talks about the triple prize for the insurance industry: satisfied customers, lower costs, higher growth, and how automation can reduce the cost of a claims journey by as much as 30 percent. Those are pretty powerful messages.

APIs are one of the foundations of digitalization. In the insurance sector, that means ecosystems connected by APIs so that insurers and third parties can share data such as customer claim information (with the consent of the customer, of course). Previously time-consuming steps can be simplified and sped-up, with the customer accepting changes to a policy digitally following an accident, for instance. Welcome to the new era of open insurance.

Introducing Risk

The insurance sector also has the opportunity to learn what other markets have, sometimes to their cost: API security is everything. APIs have huge potential, but they also bring in risk. One of the reasons that companies use APIs is because they provide a controlled route through which critical data can be shared, including with third parties. However, that makes the assumption that the API is robust and not vulnerable to attack. If that API is published, and then discovered to have a problem — a weakness that can be exploited — there is little or no time to take remedial action, thereby leaving that API open to attack, unauthorized access to data, or data shared externally without permission. Suddenly, that controlled route is compromised.

While that may sound like scaremongering, here is some perspective. Once a new website is published, it is likely to be attacked within hours. That is the nature of today’s highly sophisticated cyber-attack community. The result of vulnerable APIs? Insurance companies risk putting their data into the public domain. As we have seen across other industries, vulnerable APIs can lead to some high profile data breaches and cyberattacks.

So, protecting both internal and external APIs has to be a priority, and not something that is dealt with as an afterthought down the line. If APIs are the means to ensure a seamless experience across all channels, pulling together all touchpoints to secure data transfer between all parties in the ecosystem, then they need to be trusted. And that means end-to-end security of APIs across their entire lifecycle, starting with their creation.

Software Development Can Be a Source of Risk

An API is just another piece of software. It is a very clever and useful piece of software, but it is basically still software code. In the software industry, it has long been acknowledged that development of software is the top culprit for introducing future software vulnerabilities. That is changing — partly with a shift towards DevOps to create better collaboration across teams — but it is an ingrained mindset with many software developers that sorting out security is not their problem. That has traditionally been exacerbated by the fact that software developers tend to work in a very individual way, siloed from the rest of the organization. Again, movements like DevOps are changing that, but there are still some other hurdles to overcome.

First, the nature of APIs means that the whole project team is probably going to be focused on creating great performance and functionality, possibly also a great user experience too. Security is often not top-of-mind for anyone.

Anyone Can Be an API Author

Second, the simplicity of APIs means that their creation is within the reach of anyone, so reduced level of expertise is needed, and in many cases, those individuals may work at external consultancies or design agencies. That is great in terms of increasing the range of people who can write APIs, but again, the risk landscape is increased. Even if the in-house team have had the security message drummed into them, it is harder to control the experience of external teams, who may also have less experience in software development. Furthermore, everyone is probably under pressure to deliver that API fast.

API Drivers in Insurance and Other Finance Markets

In banking, open banking standards have been a driver towards better API management and security, and for good reason: the volume of APIs is growing fast, and the more vulnerable APIs there are, the greater the number of ingress points for attack. This is why in Europe, the PSD2 mandates security measures that should be implemented at the API level (and by the way, some of those measures are pretty complex).

In the insurance sector, an increasing maturity around API management and security is being propelled by, for instance in the USA, the NAIC Registry, which allows automated filing of standard reporting documentation required of insurance providers for compliance with state regulations.

The Right Culture

Given that API security is both a priority but also a challenge, how can it be improved? The first step is getting everyone involved to understand why API security is important in the first place, why that needs to start with the development stage, and their roles in mitigating any risks. This needs to apply to external contributors as much to internal ones. Think about investing in training developers on API security.

Think Wider Than Mandatory Measures

Open finance standards have some great guidance on better API security, and it is often mandated. However, these may have a very specific scope, so consider looking at the wider picture, and look at other security measures that can be applied. A handy reference is the OWASP API Security Top 10, which covers the ten most common API vulnerabilities and ways to mitigate them.

Get the Processes Right

Processes that support a more secure API development environment should be comprehensive across all deployment policies, approval workflows, users and groups. In addition, they should encompass: authentication, authorization, malicious pattern detection, message content security, rate limiting, and other security policies. Nominate people who must review an API before it is published, with time-stamped approval. That is typically carried out manually, but combined with automation through the software development process’ delivery Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery pipeline. Ensure that there is a clear audit trail, so that if something does go wrong, then the original cause can be traced and action taken so that the problem is not repeated in the future.

Automate

Given the kind of scale that is usually involved, consistency and repeatability are important, so security policies need to just automatically happen and enforced across all current and future APIs, without needing any extra coding. Additional manual intervention should be avoided, and people should not be able to switch off these policies at will. Introducing an API gateway with in-built security features will help that. That should include policing of contributions from external contributors, but make sure to choose a gateway that can support the different types of API (REST, SOAP, etc), and that automation can take place at scale, particularly since the growth of APIs and the traffic that goes through them will only increase.

Don’t Let API Security Get in the Way

API security should not fall to developers to sort out, because they are busy people who do not need another task. Instead, this should fall to API product managers, security architects, and other individuals more focused on the need for security. Even so, humans should be making the decision, with automated workflows doing the work. Use tools that continually inspect code to detect creates early on and delegate tasks wherever possible to an API management tool for consistent and simplified enforcement of security policies. The more manual intervention can be reduced, across every stage of the API’s lifecycle from creation to deployment, the greater the likelihood that robust APIs will go into production.

Insurance is at a pivotal stage in its adoption of digital technologies, and APIs are a critical part of that journey. Getting the right steps in place now will help insurance companies make the most of the changing landscape, be more efficient, compliant, and competitive, while maintaining (even enhancing!) customer satisfaction. Making sure that APIs are secure right from their early inception through to publishing is an integral part of making all that happen.

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Trust matters more than ever in an uncertain world

Trust matters more than ever in an uncertain world 2

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.

Zac Cohen

Zac Cohen

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.

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Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation

Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation 3

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).

Chart 1

Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation 4

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).

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.

Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation 5

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).

Chart 3

Diversity And Inclusion Policies Are Only The First Step

Workforce Diversity Matters To Our ESG Evaluation 6

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.

Related Research

  • 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

External Research

  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/business/discrimination-complaint-outcomes/
  • https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters#
  • https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000312240907400203
  • 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
  • https://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/BeingBlack-KeyFindings-CTI.pdf
  • https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation
  • https://www.bitc.org.uk/race-at-work-charter-signatories/
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What is loneliness and how can you manage it?

What is loneliness and how can you manage it? 7

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 selfreported 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.

Iris Schaden

Iris Schaden

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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42% of Millennials and 35% of Generation Z feel confident using alternative payment methods, or have used them previously 81%...

New Moneypenny Survey Shows How Office Life has Transformed in Post-lockdown Return to Work  13 New Moneypenny Survey Shows How Office Life has Transformed in Post-lockdown Return to Work  14
Business1 hour ago

New Moneypenny Survey Shows How Office Life has Transformed in Post-lockdown Return to Work 

A new survey by leading outsourced communications provider, Moneypenny, into the return to work post-Covid lockdown, shows that almost half...

What does the future hold for accessing earnings? Introducing the world’s first Earnings on Demand payment and debit card 18 What does the future hold for accessing earnings? Introducing the world’s first Earnings on Demand payment and debit card 19
Banking21 hours ago

What does the future hold for accessing earnings? Introducing the world’s first Earnings on Demand payment and debit card

By James Herbert, CEO & founder, Hastee Let’s begin by looking at how our brains are wired. Think about the hunter-gatherer mindset: when...

Board-Level Risk Oversight Deserves Renewed Attention Board-Level Risk Oversight Deserves Renewed Attention
Investing1 day ago

Risk Mitigation & The US Election

We need to talk about the election. For the past four months, news cycles have been dominated by the COVID-19...

Honest services wire fraud and the need for caution on multilateral development bank projects 20 Honest services wire fraud and the need for caution on multilateral development bank projects 21
Business1 day ago

Honest services wire fraud and the need for caution on multilateral development bank projects

By Joshua Ray, Legal Director, Rahman Ravelli www.rahmanravelli.co.uk A recent court case extended US prosecutors’ extraterritorial reach for tackling corruption....

Teaching children about wealth management and why there has never been a better time 22 Teaching children about wealth management and why there has never been a better time 23
Finance1 day ago

Teaching children about wealth management and why there has never been a better time

By Annabel Bosman is Managing Director and Head of Relationship Management at RBC Wealth Management As we approach the end...

Do your contracts and policies stand up to the Covid-19 test? A view from the UK 24 Do your contracts and policies stand up to the Covid-19 test? A view from the UK 25
Business1 day ago

Do your contracts and policies stand up to the Covid-19 test? A view from the UK

By Amy Cooper of Ius Laboris UK firm Lewis Silkin The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have stress-tested employment contracts and policies,...

Going branchless: How banks can keep customers coming through the virtual doors  26 Going branchless: How banks can keep customers coming through the virtual doors  27
Banking1 day ago

Going branchless: How banks can keep customers coming through the virtual doors 

By Richard Kelsey, Head of Software Sales at Backbase Though you might be familiar with the popular seaside town of Newquay,...

Board Report Highlights Complex Decision-Making Process Across Banking and Finance sector 28 Board Report Highlights Complex Decision-Making Process Across Banking and Finance sector 29
Business2 days ago

Board Report Highlights Complex Decision-Making Process Across Banking and Finance sector

‘The State Of Decision-Making’ report from Board, reveals business decisions made in silos without modern planning tools A third (33%)...