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GSS > Policy Store Items > Loneliness indicators

Loneliness indicators

The following guidance sets out how to collect and report statistics about loneliness to ensure statistics about this topic are as comparable as possible across the Government Statistical Service (GSS).

Within the UK, there are separate strategies to measure and tackle loneliness in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The following measures of loneliness were developed to be used on major studies to inform future policy in England.

Questions

This section provides guidance on the survey questions to use when collecting information about loneliness.

Based on the review of existing measures and the results of the testing programme, we recommend four questions to capture different aspects of loneliness. The first three questions are from the UCLA three-item loneliness scale, currently used on the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the last is a direct question about how often the respondent feels lonely, currently used on the Community Life Survey. The questions recommended for use with adults aged 16 and over are shown below.

 

To ask respondents aged 16 and over.

The next four questions are about relationships with others. For each one, please say how often (if at all) you feel that way.

 

How often do you feel that you lack companionship?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

  

How often do you feel left out?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

 

 How often do you feel isolated from others?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

 

How often do you feel lonely?

Scale: Often or Always / Some of the time / Occasionally / Hardly ever / Never

 

 

The two approaches to measurement provide a more holistic picture of loneliness (as evidenced by findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). Where it is not possible to use all four questions as survey space is a major constraint, we would recommend at a minimum, the use of direct question on loneliness: ‘How often do you feel lonely?’ to provide an estimate of the prevalence based on respondents’ own perspectives. This will ensure the greatest comparability with other surveys and enable benchmarking, while minimising use of survey time and space.

An adapted version of the measures is recommended for use with children and young people aged 10-15. The wording for the children’s measure was changed to a more ‘plain English’ version, reflecting concerns that the words “companionship” and “isolation” are difficult for children to read and may be interpreted in a range of different ways. We revised the questions and tested them cognitively (to understand children’s ease of use and interpretations) and on a survey conducted among children by the Children’s Society. The findings showed that the revised questions were appropriate for use with children.

To ask respondents aged 10 to 15.

 

How often do you feel that you have no one to talk to?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

 

How often do you feel left out?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

 

How often do you feel alone?

Scale: Hardly ever or never / Some of the time / Often

 

How often do you feel lonely?

Scale: Often or Always / Some of the time / Occasionally / Hardly ever / Never

 

 

Presentation of outputs

This section provides guidance for outputting the survey questions to use when collecting information about loneliness

The first three questions for adults and children are those used for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) three-item scale (or an adaptation of this scale for children). Using the questions as intended by the developers of the scale involves assigning a score (as detailed in this section) to each response and creating a total score by summing the individual scores.

 

For example:

“Hardly ever or Never” = 1

“Some of the time” = 2

“Often” = 3

 

The lowest possible combined score on the loneliness scale is 3 (indicating less frequent loneliness) and the highest is 9 (indicating more frequent loneliness). There is no accepted threshold for which a person would definitely be considered lonely. Instead, we suggest that it may be more helpful to use the average score across the sample to monitor and report changes over time. Additionally, it may also be useful to compare the average scores of different groups of people within the sample.

It is also helpful to look at responses to the individual questions separately, for example, by reporting percentages of people giving each response to each question.

The individual responses to the UCLA questions may also be helpful in interpreting responses to the final question, “How often do you feel lonely?” This question is not part of the UCLA scale and responses to this question should not be included in the UCLA combined score. Doing so would make your results incomparable with other surveys using the UCLA scale.

The final question also has a different response scale to that used in the first three questions. This is to maintain comparability with an important survey that has been regularly collecting information on loneliness in England for several years, the Community Life Survey. We suggest that this can be used either as a stand-alone measure of loneliness, or in combination with the three questions from the UCLA scale.

There is no special approach to reporting findings from the direct question on loneliness, but it may be helpful to refer to the approach used by the Community Life Survey. They have produced a factsheet on loneliness, which provides a user-friendly approach to reporting the findings.

In reporting the prevalence of loneliness in your study, we suggest using the responses from the direct question, “How often do you feel lonely?”. Although previous studies have shown that some groups, such as men, may under-report loneliness when responding to direct questions, this is currently the best measure we have of people’s own self-perceived experience of loneliness. If the results of the two approaches to measurement suggest differences between groups of people who may be more or less likely to report loneliness (or feelings associated with it), it would be very helpful to indicate this in your reporting of the findings and to share it more widely.

 

 

For more information, please see the Introductory Page, available on the GSS website:

https://gss.civilservice.gov.uk/statistics/methodology-2/harmonisation/

 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been responsible for recommending measures of loneliness for use on National Surveys in the Autumn of 2018 to satisfy government requirements. The proposed indicators described herein are currently being tested on various national surveys and, as such, are experimental. The continued suitability of the questions will be revised on an ad hoc basis.

A great deal of question testing has already been conducted. All question testing that has been carried out on loneliness questions has been done using separate surveys including – the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) the Community Life Survey (CLS) and the Children’s Society Household Survey (CSHS).

As loneliness has been shown to be linked to poor physical and mental health and poor personal well-being with potentially adverse effects on communities, it is an issue of increasing interest to policy-makers at local and national levels as well as internationally. Within the UK, there are separate strategies to measure and tackle loneliness in Scotland and Wales. The Prime Minister has asked ONS to recommend measures of loneliness for all ages for use on major studies to inform future policy in England.

 

Question Placement

It is recommended that the loneliness questions are placed with related subject matter such as health or well-being. The positioning of the questions was decided following ONS qualitative work and discussion with a Technical Advisory Group comprised of experts in loneliness measurement. After initial testing, we suggest the questions work coherently as part of a suite of well-being related questions. For example, the loneliness questions could follow questions on health and personal well-being. We suggest that the loneliness questions should not be the final items on the survey as this could leave some respondents feeling low.

Further details on question placement can be found here.

 

Survey Modes

The questions have been used on several established surveys using different survey modes, including paper self-completion (English Longitudinal Study of Aging), online self-completion (Community Life Survey, Good Childhood Index Survey), and telephone interview (Opinions Survey). Our cognitive testing has suggested that respondents may be more likely to answer openly in self-completion formats where they can be sure their responses will remain private.

If you would like further information on the Loneliness Indicators or have any questions, please contact:

Email:               qualityoflife@ons.gov.uk

Telephone:        01633 455674

Mail:     Dawn Snape

Quality of Life and Social Well-being Analysis Branches

Sustainability and Inequalities Division

Office for National Statistics

Room 2.164

Government Buildings

Cardiff Road

Newport

South Wales

NP10 8XG

 

For more information about Harmonisation or to join our mailing list, please visit our website at:

https://gss.civilservice.gov.uk/statistics/methodology-2/harmonisation/

 

If you would like further information or have any questions, please contact:

Email:               harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk

Telephone:        01329 444055

Mail:            Harmonisation Team

Office for National Statistics

Room 2400

Segensworth Road

Titchfield

Fareham

PO15 5R