Loneliness may not be a widely discussed topic, but it should be. Just as mental health has emerged from obscurity to the forefront of employee wellness conversations, loneliness is a public health issue that is reaching epidemic proportions.
All The Lonely People
In a national survey of 20,000 adults, nearly half (46%) reported sometimes or always feeling alone. Twenty percent said they rarely or never feel close to people, and only 53% said they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis. Loneliness may be even more prevalent in younger generations. One study found loneliness was most common in those under twenty-five.
Loneliness has a psychological impact. The feeling of unwillingly being alone or socially isolated is correlated with depression, dementia, substance abuse, and anxiety.
Loneliness has a physiological impact as well. People who are socially isolated have higher rates of cancer, infection, and heart disease. They also have more stress, which increases blood pressure and leads to a greater risk of heart attacks and stroke. One study shows that being lonely has the same health care risk—and cost—of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness At Work
Despite the variety of technologies available to aid communication, employees can still feel lonely, even sitting in an office filled with co-workers. For those employees who work remotely, that feeling may be even more severe.
Lonely employees are less likely to be engaged in their work, which decreases productivity. They are less committed to the company, which results in higher absenteeism and lower retention. This has financial repercussions for employers. In the United Kingdom, for example, this drain on productivity costs employers $3.5 billion.
How Employers Can Help Lonely Employees
A company cannot solve all of an employee’s problems, and loneliness can certainly exist in an employee’s personal life. However, employers can take steps to decrease loneliness that can occur in the workplace.
Awareness may be the first step. Although emails and texts offer expediency and improve efficiency in some ways, these technologies cannot replace the connection established by in-person interactions. Leaders should consider their team members. Are there employees who do not interact with others or who have decreased their interaction? What about employees who work remotely? Are there any that may seem lonely?
Employers should look for opportunities to promote in-person interactions for those in the office. The best way to do this is have managers lead by example. Instead of emailing a co-worker a question, leaders should walk over to them to discuss it instead. For employees who work remotely, have video chats instead of phone calls to increase that sense of connection. Employers can also organize onsite meetings for remote employees on a quarterly or annual basis.
Other opportunities include scheduling team meetings and lunches, establishing peer mentoring, and organizing team projects. Simply stopping by an employee’s cubicle to ask about their weekend can go a long way.
Combatting loneliness requires bringing humanness back into the office. For companies that want to create a culture of caring, this is not a one-person effort. It is the responsibility of each employee to look out for one another.
The cost of loneliness is too great to ignore. Although it will require multiple approaches to ease this condition, recognizing that widespread loneliness exists is the first step, and reaching out to make human contact with fellow employees provides a good start to address the problem.