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The Loneliness Epidemic: Do workplaces have a role in making people feel connected?

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Americans crave human connection.

This is the finding of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who on May 3 issued an advisory declaring an epidemic of loneliness.

When workplaces first faced the health emergency of COVID-19, owners and managers mobilized. Many set up remote work systems for the first time, and when workers were together, sanitizer, barriers and masks were on hand to keep everyone as safe as possible.

If business leaders accept the surgeon general’s assessment that loneliness is an epidemic, they may wonder what the equivalent of providing a container of sanitizing wipes would be for this health crisis. What are the efforts, big or small, they can take to help the problem? And even if they can, should they?

The cost of loneliness
Half of adults in the U.S. reported that they experienced loneliness in the years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Murthy’s report – and then COVID-19 hit, cutting people off from loved ones and support systems.

Murthy’s report notes loneliness is harmful to physical health, bringing greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke and premature death.

“The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day,” Murthy’s introduction states.

The report also notes mental health costs, like decreased cognitive function, increased depression and anxiety and a higher chance of suicide and self-harm. It cites a 2010 study that claims social isolation is the most reliable predictor of suicidal ideation and behavior.

Business impact
Don Harkey, owner and CEO of business management consultancy People Centric Consulting Group LLC, said business leaders can’t afford to ignore the loneliness epidemic.

“Loneliness is certainly going to impact businesses,” he said. “From a practical, coldhearted business perspective, this is something businesses are dealing with. Notice I’m not saying they are going to – I’m saying they are.”

Many businesses offer access to an employee assistance program to help employees who say they are struggling. An option for smaller businesses is to negotiate a plan of their own, perhaps with a small counseling group, Harkey said.

What can be tricky is approaching an employee who appears to be struggling. It would not be appropriate to walk up to an employee and announce that they look sad.

“I don’t think you start there,” Harkey said. “You have to share observations of what you’re seeing in the workplace.”

An example might be an employee who is isolating from other team members. An employer can approach this worker and note what they have observed before asking if they want to talk about what’s going on. Just saying, “I see you,” can go a long way, Harkey said.

“Employers have to be careful not to diagnose health issues for their employees by saying, ‘Your problem is you’re too lonely!’” he said. “You have to reflect to the employee how you’re seeing that impact at work.”

Outings and service projects
If half of Americans are lonely, as Murthy reports, one solution might be to get people together for some fun. During the pandemic, many workplaces got creative with Zoom happy hours and similar events to get workers connecting over something other than their work projects, and these continue for some remote workers and hybrid teams.

Collaboration is part of the job for 50% of U.S. workers, according to research from earlier this year by workplace research firm Zippia, and companies that promote collaboration and communication while working have reduced employee turnover by 50%.

The Harvard Review reported earlier this year that socializing outside of work improves communication among team members by more than 50%.

It’s no surprise that Dan Reiter, general manager of the Springfield Cardinals, advocates peanuts, Cracker Jack and a rousing round of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But part of the reason Reiter is in favor of company outings is that his own organization takes them once a month.

“Our company started a few years ago having a monthly social get-together,” Reiter said. “I saw it work. Silos got broken down, and people communicated better.”

He said every time he talks to a group of business leaders, he enthusiastically advocates monthly socials as a way to help company culture.

“Whoever the local figurehead is – boss, supervisor – it’s important for them to participate, too,” Reiter said. “It’s important for people to see them relaxing and having fun.”

Some companies also get into the community for service projects, like the forthcoming Day of Caring, sponsored by United Way of the Ozarks.

United Way President and CEO Greg Burris said benefits for an individual volunteer run deep.

“It can feed an individual’s hunger for a sense of purpose,” he said. “Helping others feeds the soul.”

Volunteering also builds community ownership, Burris said.

“It can help the volunteer see the needs within their community and recognize that they – as an individual or part of a team – can make a significant impact on their community and their neighbors in need,” he said.

Strategies for connecting
“There are a lot of ways to create connection,” said Shelly Farnan, vice president of Be Well Initiatives and diversity, equity and inclusion for Burrell Behavioral Health.

For some, connection might look like participating in committees, and for others it may be doing things outside of work with team members.

Not every idea will be a hit with all workers, Farnan said, and that’s why she recommended diversifying options. Maybe a night at the ballpark is a swing and a miss for one worker, but they might enjoy going outdoors to clean up a stream.

The key is to have opportunities for team members to choose how to get connected, and that is easier when leaders have invested time to get to know workers.

“Every day our employees walk in as a community member, as a human,” she said. “This isn’t about workplace connection; it’s about community.”

She suggested not making presumptions about remote workers but staying in communication with them.

“When we stay connected in healthy relationships with team members, that’s when we know, OK, does this team member enjoy those virtual happy hours or not?” she said. “We assumed that remote workers would have more dissatisfaction, but in some companies, they actually appreciate being able to work at home.”

She added that some people are introverts, and some are extroverts.

“Sometimes people don’t want to ‘people’ at work – they don’t want those social connections,” she said, but added that doesn’t mean they’re lonely.

Farnan noted the core human need is to be seen and known and valued.

“If our employees don’t feel seen, known, valued and connected, they’re not going to bring their best self to work,” she said.

Leaders, too, have to check in with themselves to determine how they feel, Farnan said.

“How lonely do we feel as leaders and as owners of companies?” she said. “I would really like to support owners and leaders of companies and invite them to think about their own loneliness.”

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