This is a case study for Principle Q2: Sound methods.
In 2018, in response to the manifesto published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, The Prime Minister called loneliness “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time”. As such, a consistent approach is needed to measuring how loneliness affects people’s lives and who is more susceptible to it. The Prime Minister tasked the Office for National Statistics (ONS) with developing the evidence base and to develop national indicators of loneliness, suitable for use on major studies, to inform future policy in England.
The harmonisation of the new loneliness indicators was important for enabling more surveys to measure loneliness in the same way, in order to build a better evidence base more quickly. This is needed to enable a better understanding of what factors are most associated with loneliness, what the effects of loneliness are for different people, and how it can be prevented or alleviated. As this is a devolved matter, ONS took this work forward for England, with scope for future work to harmonise across the Devolved Administrations.
In December 2018, following consultations with key stakeholders and experts, and extensive collaboration with the ONS Quality of Life team, the GSS Harmonisation Team published the Harmonised Principles for measuring loneliness. The principles can be used to measure loneliness using any survey or administrative data source, which ensures a consistent approach can be adopted across major studies to inform future policy in England.
After identifying the need for indicators across all ages, the GSS Harmonisation Team agreed upon two sets of indicator questions and one direct loneliness question. The first set of four indicator questions is recommended for use with adults while there is an alternatively worded set recommended for use with children. The questions were tested and then used in 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).
All four questions are also due to be adopted on the:
- Community Life Survey (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)
- National Travel Survey (Department for Transport)
And the direct loneliness question is due to be included on the:
- Active Lives Adult Survey (Sport England)
- English Housing Survey (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government)
- Taking Part Survey (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)
- Tri-service families continuous attitude survey (Ministry of Defence)
Given the important link between health and loneliness, there is also ongoing work with various agencies including Public Health England, NHS England and NHS Digital to include the loneliness measures in key surveys, such as the Health Survey for England. Work is also ongoing to continue harmonisation of the loneliness indicators across the GSS, including consultation with the Devolved Administrations.
This example shows how the GSS Harmonisation Team has worked effectively with statistics producers across government and experts in loneliness measurement, to develop consistent methods for measuring loneliness in both adults and children. These measures can then be adopted in a comparable way across major studies to help inform effective government policy responses in this area of current public debate.