More than half of Americans consider themselves lonely.

The conversation about loneliness has swelled in recent years, ever since a 2010 study by psychology and epidemiology researchers demonstrated that being lonely did as much physical damage to our bodies as “smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity.”

Why is this information critical for organizational leaders today? According to a 2020 Cigna study of over 20,000 American adults, we are more lonely than ever before. Yet, that loneliness decreases when we have better relationships at work.

In the US and UK, public health experts recognize that loneliness has reached crisis levels. Many organizations have spearheaded programs and campaigns to reduce loneliness. As a leader in your organization, either formal or informal, you have the power to make a difference in this epidemic.

Loneliness and Work: The Basics

Three in five Americans consider themselves lonely, a seven percentage-point increase from 2018. Furthermore, younger generations are lonelier than older generations. Nearly eight in 10 Gen Zers (79%) and seven in 10 millennials (71%) of those surveyed reported being lonely, vs. half of baby-boomers (50%), so this will continue to impact the workplace as younger generations join the workforce.

According to the Cigna study, the key determinants of loneliness in America include infrequent meaningful interactions, negative feelings about one’s personal relationships, feeling a lack of balance in one’s activities (e.g. work and home), and self-assessed poor mental and physical health. Addressing all of these determinants can make a difference.

The Cigna study’s data also support the idea that relationships at work can reduce loneliness: People who reported that they don’t have good relationships with their coworkers were 10 points lonelier than those who do.

Loneliness at work has been studied by many researchers before this Cigna study. Some of this previous work explains how the workplace contributes to, and can reduce, a sense of loneliness.

Loneliness has been tied to burnout by Yale researchers Emma Seppälä and Marissa King. Helping people connect rather than isolate is key to burnout reduction. That means investing in initiatives that create a sense of belonging with their coworkers and teams, even if employees seem quite different from one another (many initiatives, from alcohol-filled after-work happy hours to Christmas parties, exclude parents, people of different religions, and caretakers, even without intending to do so). Work friendships come with potential downsides, too, which are important to consider.

Where do we go from here? All of us can have an impact on the loneliness epidemic — it will take a major cultural change to resolve this public health crisis.

Related Article: Working in Pajamas: The Downside of Telecommuting

Create Safety First, Then Connection

Ensure safety (not just physical, but emotional) in your workplace. It is not enough to throw people together in any physical or digital space and hope they care for one another.

Hyper-vigilance and social anxiety are the primary causes of loneliness, not our social structures. Suddenly launching an employee community or engagement program without ensuring participant safety leads to more damage and loneliness, not less.

Learning Opportunities

One of the key questions tied to feeling a sense of belonging was a positive answer to the statement: “I have enough people I feel comfortable asking for help at any time.”

It is not easy to create space safe enough for people to feel comfortable asking for help. It requires conscious investment and stewarding. To get started or deepen existing efforts, try these:

  • If organizing an event or online gathering, create a Code of Conduct and a mechanism for people to report violations of the code.
  • When someone new arrives in your community or workplace, be sure they have access to someone to speak to, get a facilitated connection, and receive guidance about how to navigate the experience at hand. The more structure you give to this process, the more safe people are likely to feel, rather than being thrown into the deep end.
  • New leaders in an organization can also threaten feelings of safety among employees. Try this tip from Simon Sinek, who shares Chanel’s policy, where new leaders must only listen and not talk in meetings during their first 30 days. When new team members listen and learn, existing employees feel understood, deeper problems can be solved, and the new team member can relax, knowing they don’t have to prove they’re smart.
  • This is a tough one for the executive crowd, but all the more important: If you are a leader, you must start vulnerable conversations. This ensures that you, as a leader, demonstrate positive consequences for sharing weaknesses and mistakes, which creates ground fertile for trust-building and collaboration.

    Go first and model how it is done. No one else is going to do it for you. Not sure how to be vulnerable at work? Consider Brene Brown’s advice: “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure.”

Related Article: How to Cultivate the Human Side of Leadership

Use Online Connection Wisely

Take this to heart: when we use social media as a tool to deepen our strong-tie relationships (i.e. those with close friends and family rather than acquaintances or weak-tie relationships), our well-being increases. When we use it to consume content or compare ourselves to others, well-being decreases. While well-being and belonging are not the same things, they are certainly connected.

To address the loneliness epidemic at work, help deepen strong-tie relationships at work or via any digital community programs, or facilitate weak-tie conversations that will lead to strong-tie relationships over time (an online employee community is great for this).

Related Article: Is Your Time Online Time Well Spent?

Undoing Loneliness Is All of Our Responsibility

We have the power to change the course of the loneliness epidemic. Every day, in the small choices we make to help others feel seen and known, we have the chance to turn things around. The Cigna study reveals that reducing loneliness is a behavioral issue, not a structural one. In other words, we do not need to tear down our existing structures (buildings, organizational structures, or social environments) to affect change. We need only to do two things. First, we must invite our own vulnerability. Second, we must create space for others’.

Yes, this work requires bravery. But we cannot know the solution and turn away from it, not if we want things to get better.

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