Workforce impact of loneliness and social isolation

Humans are tribal by nature. We survived for millions of years because we worked in packs. Whether in our social life or on the job, humans seek connection. We’re motivated by a need to belong and support those we identify with. When our jobs make us feel cared for and valued, we build positive attachments. This aligns with our social wiring and helps us do our best. When employees feel lonely, their productivity and personal health can suffer.

Loneliness is the perceived feeling of isolation. It can happen even around other people. The quality of our relationships, not the quantity, causes us to feel lonely. You can have a few close friends and feel connected and engaged. Or you can have a thousand virtual friends and feel lonely and isolated. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a worldwide loneliness epidemic. Since the pandemic, 41% of people report feeling lonelier than before.1

Having a true, authentic connection with someone, especially during times of need, is important for our physical and mental well-being. The negative impact loneliness has on our health and longevity compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.2

Loneliness can also impact performance at work. Before the pandemic, people spent most of their day surrounded by co-workers. Yet, a pre-pandemic survey found two in five employees felt isolated on the job.3 Many employees feel they cannot be their authentic selves on the job. This leaves them feeling like nobody knows them as a person.

Workplace loneliness is a company problem. When employees feel disconnected, they feel more dissatisfied with their jobs, take twice as many sick days and are more likely to quit.4 Loneliness takes a toll on decision-making and reasoning skills, and it impairs creativity.5 It can also be contagious and impact team performance.6

Tips to improve work connections

Creating a culture that promotes social connection is good for business, but it involves more than simply putting people in the same room. It’s about fostering genuine, authentic relationships that help employees feel valued and connected.

The tips below apply to all workplaces — in-person and remote. Even one-on-one video calls can promote empathy and caring.

1. Make social connections a strategic priority.

  • Ask employees if they feel connected with others
  • Build a plan to address challenges and set goals to improve
  • Increase awareness about the importance of human connection
  • Normalize loneliness and address the stigma of mental health issues
  • Train managers to be more engaged and get to know their team

2. Create a culture where everyone feels included.

  • Foster positive ties and promote meaningful connections
  • Encourage leaders to thank employees for accomplishments big and small
  • Celebrate individuality and diversity; promote inclusion
  • Create a shared meaning and promote cooperation over competition
  • Cultivate a culture of caring, compassion, empathy and trust
  • Recognize personal successes and celebrate shared wins as a team
  • Show appreciation and gratitude

3. Increase chances to connect.

  • Create social events, team-building exercises and cross-departmental projects
  • Develop workplace communities and employee resource groups
  • Encourage people to get to know their co-workers on an authentic level
  • Evaluate your physical space to increase engagement and connection
  • Promote interaction with someone new each day (create a “Just Say Hello” challenge)
  • Use group challenges and competitions in your wellness programme

The information provided in this blog post reflects the personal views of the author. The blog post contains general health information and is not a substitute for a doctor’s care.

Sources:

  1. Ipsos. Loneliness on the increase worldwide, but an increase in local community support. ipsos.com/en/loneliness-increase-worldwide-increase-local-community-support. March 2, 2021. Accessed October 19, 2021.
  2. Holt-Lunstad J. The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public Policy & Aging Report. 2017; 27(4)127–130.
  3. Harvard Business Review. The surprising power of simply asking coworkers how they’re doing. hbr.org/2019/02/the-surprising-power-of-simply-asking-coworkers-how-theyre-doing. February 28, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2021.
  4. Forbes. Loneliness is crippling workplace productivity: here’s the leadership prescription. forbes.com/sites/jasonwingard/2020/02/14/loneliness-is-crippling-workplace-productivity-heres-the-leadership-prescription/?sh=6a7e92f58f6f. February 14, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021.
  5. Harvard Business Review. Work and the loneliness epidemic. hbr.org/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic. September 26, 2017. Accessed October 19, 2021.
  6. Harvard Business Review. The painful cycle of employee loneliness, and how it hurts companies. hbr.org/2018/04/the-painful-cycle-of-employee-loneliness-and-how-it-hurts-companies. April 24, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021.

About the Author

Rick Hecht, LMFT, is the vice president and EAP market leader for OptumHealth. He has over 25 years of distinguished strategic leadership in the health care industry and has consulted to multiple Fortune 500 companies, public sector groups and health care organizations. He is a licensed clinician and is currently completing his doctoral degree in clinical psychology, with a research emphasis on loneliness and social connection in the workplace.

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