Loneliness kills. It poses a greater threat to health than obesity, and its life-shortening effects are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Furthermore, it is rampant in today’s workplace.
Those are some of the conclusions reached by Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States. Due to the significant time we spend at work, he says, it is incumbent on business leaders to be proactive in tackling the problem of loneliness.
Business leaders have a professional and personal interest in taking this issue head-on. As Murthy and others point out, loneliness impairs performance, creativity, and decision making. Moreover, while loneliness is prevalent throughout the workforce, those at the top are hardly immune—half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles.
As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, let us examine why so many are feeling isolated, and how forward-looking companies can foster a greater sense of connection.
Loneliness is toxic
Loneliness has clear consequences for mental health, aggravating anxiety, depression, and stress-related symptoms. Additionally, it sabotages our physical health.
According to two leading researchers, loneliness triggers an inflammatory response and threatens our immune system. These changes can even be detected at the cellular level. As one of the researchers said, “The level of toxicity from loneliness is stunning.”
Because loneliness is closely related to feelings of isolation, it is tempting to see it as an individual phenomenon. However, research shows that loneliness sets in motion a painful cycle that affects an entire organization. Lonely employees feel and act less approachable, undermining trust, group cohesion, and collaboration with others. Those ripple effects make loneliness an organizational problem, and addressing it an organizational responsibility.
Connection is the best antidote to loneliness
Not only is connection the best antidote to loneliness and isolation, but it will also pay dividends in the form of improved employee wellbeing and productivity.
Last year, Cigna released a major study of loneliness in America. They concluded that business leaders could contribute significantly to a solution by creating a “culture of connectivity.” Coaching and mentoring can create opportunities to build relationships and support networks. Cross-functional collaboration nudges people out of silos and fosters a greater sense of shared purpose and creativity.
One thing loneliness researchers agree on, and something I stress to my clients, is that it is the quality and not the quantity of relationships that matters. Gallup finds that employees who have a single close friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged.
Cultivate meaningful connections at work and invest in those relationships as you would family or close friends. Make attending to your other relationships a priority as well—people with strong social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer.
The value of recreation and recharging
Mental Health America suggests a variety of options for combatting loneliness. Outdoor activities and experiencing nature support emotional wellbeing and decrease depression and anxiety. Taking classes of interest refreshes our minds and helps us make new connections.
The National Institutes of Health reminds us of the value of volunteering. Helping others is one of the best ways to break the cycle of loneliness. It also encourages us to practice gratitude, a habit strongly linked to happiness and wellbeing. Business leaders can create voluntary opportunities through the workplace to build teamwork and company morale.
Americans have a bad habit of not taking advantage of their much-needed vacation time. Vacations are an essential way to reconnect with family and loved ones, especially since many families are spread out geographically in the U.S. A culture that makes employees feel guilty for using vacation time is counterproductive in the long run.
Treat your employees holistically
Smart business leaders see employees as whole human beings and treat them accordingly. The Cigna study stresses the importance of flexible work arrangements that allow employees to deal with any personal challenges they face. Such flexibility includes providing generous maternity and paternal leave, as well as caretaker leave. Caretakers are especially vulnerable to feeling isolated.
Creating an inclusive organizational culture is another way to combat loneliness. True diversity goes beyond hiring and extends to acknowledging and embracing differences. Conversations about difference and the value diverse backgrounds bring to an organization are an opportunity to learn and connect. The opposite of feeling isolated is knowing that your voice matters and is valued.
A culture of belonging and connection starts at the top. According to Gallup, only four of ten U.S. employees feel their supervisor values them as a person. Business leaders must model a leadership style that is authentic and values the whole person.
Of course, business leaders have to take care of themselves as well. You cannot foster mental wellbeing in your organization if you do not tend to your own. It can indeed be lonely at the top. Allow yourself to lean on a coach or mentor. The battle against loneliness starts with you.
We live in a world that encourages distraction and disconnection. Cultivating mindful presence and deliberate connection takes effort and practice. Yet making a habit of doing so pays off in the long run. Leaders who instill belief and belonging will find themselves with a healthier organization, and happier and more fulfilled personally.