America’s loneliness crisis began long before the pandemic – but a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General declaring an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” adds even greater urgency. This epidemic has mounting implications for the workplace, with employers and business leaders seeking ways to support social connection, community, and overall well-being.
While everyone from the UK’s “Minister of Loneliness” to Dr. Ruth has begun to raise the alarm, less attention has been paid to the role of the workforce. However, research finds good reason to prioritize this issue. A 2022 study estimates that stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers $154 billion annually in the U.S. More broadly, the Surgeon General reported that loneliness is associated with a greater risk of dementia (50%), stroke (32%), cardiovascular disease (29%) and premature death (26%).
For employees, the shift to flexible or remote work is one of many societal trends that have changed how people engage with one another. This is a complex issue, with perspectives and impacts that can vary widely. For one employee, remote work may mean more meaningful time with family, but for another, it may mean longer periods of isolation. However, there is little debate that work now includes more virtual interactions and digital mediation than ever before.
The full implications of the rise of hybrid work are still emerging. Overall, a recent SHRM Foundation survey of HR professionals found that more than one-third (35%) feel loneliness is now more common than before the pandemic. As a result, workplace interactions – virtually or in-person – may have “heightened importance” according to SHRM.
So, how can employers increase social connection in the workplace and reduce the impact of loneliness at work? The American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health offers tips:
- Evaluate the current state of social connection. Ask employees whether organizational culture supports connection at work and between colleagues. Based on responses, consider initiatives to foster engagement, build community, and support employees in building high-quality relationships at work.
- Find the right balance of in-person connection and digital tools. There is no one-size-fits-all answer; instead, companies and managers should find what works best for their team. Digital technologies and personal interactions can work together to support multiple forms of employee connection.
- Create community with events, groups, and other programming. This can be done by offering new events, employee interest groups, or clubs based around common hobbies or interests. These channels are especially important for bridging gaps across departments and teams in larger organizations.
Social isolation and loneliness are a growing concern for societies and employers. As the place where people spend eight hours a day – in-person or virtually – the workplace can be a natural center for engagement and a key part of the social fabric. By taking action, organizations can support a comprehensive mental health strategy that expands support networks for employee well-being.
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