I sat in the chemistry lecture hall, soaking up the energetic atmosphere that comes with hundreds of people gathered to learn more about positive psychology. It was the annual Summit for those associated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, and though the topic was science of a different sort, chemistry was indeed in the air. There was so much talk of love in the room, so many standing ovations that they practically ceased to mean anything at all, that it sometimes distracted from the importance of the information itself. Dr. Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon General, sat discussing his upcoming book on what he calls “the loneliness epidemic.” And as he spoke, I tilted my head ever so slightly toward a friend and former classmate, and without much thought, said it: “I think I’m lonely.”
“Me, too,” he said.
Murthy served as Surgeon General from 2014-2017. After embarking on an initial listening tour throughout the United States, he decided to focus his platform on what he heard. And what he heard most resoundingly, from people across all demographics, was that people are lonely--and their loneliness is affecting their health. It didn’t take him long to determine that the number of people affected, in all walks of life, qualifies loneliness as an epidemic--a public health crisis that needs to be addressed meaningfully.
It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m sure, that despite the fact that we live in the most technologically connected age that ever was, loneliness in almost all domains of life is practically palpable. I could say measurable rates of loneliness are increasing, and you might argue that we are measuring things we didn’t before--so I will leave it here: loneliness is certainly nothing new. It’s surely part of the human condition--anyone who reads knows this, and C.S. Lewis said that perhaps this is why we read--”to know we’re not alone.” But while technology allows us to connect more easily, there is something superficial, artificial, that cannot replace our need for human interaction. And what do humans spend the majority of their time doing? Working. So interactions at work matter--and employers should be paying attention to this concept.
The magnitude and impact of loneliness has yet to be fully realized or acted upon by most employers. Murthy explained that several factors play into this epidemic: geographic mobility, the increased use of technology, and the nature of work itself. More and more people move away from close family and friends to pursue careers; fewer meaningful connections are made at work, where often an email replaces a conversation; and work itself cuts into precious time once reserved for connecting with family and friends. We are perhaps all at a point where we should be saying: “I know it’s easier to send a text, but is it better?”
Murthy cited some numbers that surprised me, but the one that stuck with me is that loneliness or weak social connections are associated with a reduced lifespan that is about the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As someone who lost her smoker-dad to lung cancer when I was 21 (and he was 57), that one hit me hard. Loneliness also puts people at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression.
What does this mean for employers, and how can you help?
If your employees are lonely, it will decrease their performance, limit their ability to be creative, and generally impair other domains of their executive function, such as being able to reason or make good decisions. Murthy explained that a good start for businesses is to actually assess the state of connections in the workplace--do employees feel genuinely valued? Is there a culture that supports helping each other? Is there an opportunity to be seen as a whole person--as more than just the role one is performing?
The best workplace cultures are supported by strategic planning that promotes meaningful connections. This means fostering a corporate culture where it is expected and encouraged that colleagues will freely give and receive help, where people are meant to be wholly understood and are given the opportunity to connect with others as much as possible, and where time outside of work has measures of protection so that employees at every level have time off with family and friends to cultivate connections that are intimate and invaluable.
Each of us, regardless of our role at work, has a fundamental human need for connection. If we aren’t proactive in making time for meaningful connections that are positive, my fear is that we will settle for connections that are potentially toxic to our well-being. Because it simply feels better to connect in the wrong way, rather than not to connect at all, many of us engage in unhealthy relationships that we reason at least give us something, rather than nothing. This can manifest in all kinds of behaviors, including partaking in tribalism that can be easily seen in the overt polarization that’s happening globally, or engaging in unhealthy personal relationships that are comfortable but are not in any way making us better.
We all have the potential to be better versions of ourselves. The most progessive workplaces will want to see that happen. Not just because there’s an ROI for employees who are more positive and engaged, but because it actually makes the world a better place to be for all of us.