In the United States, we are facing a crisis of loneliness. National research by Cigna found that 40 percent of people said they sometimes or always experienced isolation and that their relationships were not meaningful. Even more concerning is a meta-analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University found chronic loneliness increases health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1
We tend to perceive loneliness as a problem to solve purely on our own. Why involve others—especially people in the workplace—with our private feelings?
However, it turns out that not only is loneliness something we can all combat together—it's also something the workplace in particular plays a crucial role in preventing.
Chronic Loneliness Is Costly to Individuals and Workplaces
Each lonely worker can accrue thousands of dollars in additional costs for their workplace, adding up to over $400 billion a year in the United States alone. Dr. Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and author of Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health, believes that a big part of our country's mental health crisis stems from social disconnection and that the solutions are not just medical—they involve building and sustaining healthy relationships.
Part of that cost comes from lonely workers using more sick days on average and an increased risk of illnesses like dementia, depression, or heart disease.
Beyond healthcare costs, loneliness and its detrimental health effects cost companies and workers in another way: lost productivity. Over time, loneliness can cause exhaustion, which contributes to more loneliness and exhaustion, and eventually plays an integral role in burnout, minimized productivity, and low job satisfaction.
But Don't We Need Alone Time?
Even as social beings, humans need alone time. The length of that time varies from person to person, but it is vital for processing information, developing a stronger sense of self, and problem-solving.
Solitude is, therefore, an integral aspect of physical and mental well-being. Maybe you skip lunch with your coworkers to get a breath of fresh air after a stressful morning or look for a quiet room when working on a tight deadline. These are natural—and healthy—states of voluntary solitude in which your experience of connection matches your desire for connection (or temporary disconnection).
Loneliness, on the other hand, comes from perceived isolation—a mismatch between your desire for connection and your internal experience of it. Frustratingly, it can strike anywhere, from a loud crowd at a concert to a late night alone in one's bedroom.
"To me, loneliness is the sense that the world doesn't see you for you," says Sarah Gaer, a trauma recovery specialist and suicide loss survivor. "It's a feeling in your soul that you are ultimately on your own … in your sadness, grief, fear, anger, and even sometimes your joy."
And it can become self-perpetuating. Nadz Mendoza—founder of Self-Esteem Team, which delivers mental health workshops to students, schools, and parents, describes watching her mother struggle with loneliness.
"She'd always say she preferred to be alone," Ms. Mendoza says. "Yet, with hindsight, I think she meant she felt alone rather than wanted to be alone. It became a vicious cycle and, even though she craved connection, she'd push people away."
Loneliness and the Workplace
The amount of time we spend at work, our reliance on workplaces for social interaction, and the burden of loneliness on the economy make the workplace a vital part of the answer to chronic loneliness.
The average person spends up to one-third of their life working—equivalent to the amount of time we spend asleep. This astonishing time commitment presents countless opportunities to combat loneliness.
"School and work keep many of us connected," Ms. Gaer points out, "even when we think we don't want to be."
And although loneliness has been on the radar for years, COVID made it all the more salient for companies and workers.
"More companies have been forced to address mental health [during] the pandemic," says author and Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Sayre, "and figure out how to connect people outside the office."
Remote Work and Reliance on Technology Can Aggravate Loneliness
Remote work can be a double-edged sword: It offers flexibility and opportunities to cut overhead costs, but it also reduces the opportunities for the meaningful, in-person interactions that connect people. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that workers who switch to remote or hybrid work schedules often find themselves feeling lonelier than when they worked in person.
Solving Workplace Loneliness
Loneliness is a natural feeling, so trying to erase it in its entirety could actually cause more harm than benefit.
"It's important to acknowledge and name the loneliness that most of the world is facing right now," says Ms. Gaer. "Trying to fix it is not realistic and [is] super invalidating." Rather, she suggests, "Validation and understanding counteracts loneliness more than anything."
Plus, healthy amounts of loneliness can act as a signal that something needs to change. "In a world that moves at gazillion miles per hour," says Ms. Mendoza, "[solitude] can offer a silver lining in taking a moment to reflect."
But there are still ways workplaces can mitigate unhealthy amounts of loneliness.
Use Technology To Support Real-Life Connections
Like remote work, technology in general has its upsides and downsides. Depending on your demographics (such as age) and the types of technology you use to communicate (e.g., personal email versus Instagram DMs), you may feel less or more lonely by using it.
Used correctly, though, technology can facilitate connections that might otherwise not have had a chance to form.
"Perhaps one of the societal shifts that the pandemic may end up facilitating," says David Manuel, a postbaccalaureate psychology student at the University of British Columbia, "could be greater possibilities for starting and nurturing friendships with people who don't live near you."
Technology could be an especially powerful tool for gig and freelance workers—who often don't have coworkers—to connect with others through professional networking, support, hobbyist, or other groups.
The key is to use technologies as supplements to real-life connections rather than replacements for them.
Structure a Social Workplace
Some risk factors for loneliness are structural, such as isolation from peers or toxic work environments. So, altering the structure of your workplace can ease the risk.
You can start by incorporating more everyday opportunities for interaction, encouraging teams from different departments to collaborate, reducing hyper competitiveness, and refashioning reward systems to incentivize camaraderie. And if you're involved in customer service, you may be able to address loneliness even beyond employees and coworkers.
"I adore the 'chat checkouts' used by Jumbo Supermarket," says Ms. Mendoza, referring to special lanes designated for shoppers who could use a good conversation instead of checking out as quickly as possible.
"There [are] also 'chat corners' where customers can grab a cuppa," explains Ms. Mendoza. "Offering space and time costs nothing, yet it can save lives!"
A little solitude can be healthy, but too much can cost money, time, and even longevity. Fortunately, workers don't have to manage loneliness, well, alone.
Katherine Sayre coauthored Happy at Any Cost, a book about former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, and cites Zappos as an example of how structural changes can promote a loneliness-resistant work culture—and a happier, more productive worker.
"[CEO] Tony Hsieh made people feel connected [and] accepted," Ms. Sayre says. And, when other companies saw the benefits of actively combatting loneliness in their own organizations, they jumped on board.
"[Hsieh] didn't talk about loneliness explicitly," she adds, "but his approach to a happy workplace showed how loneliness [can] be addressed at work, too."
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