Working Well

Loneliness Creeps into Workplace Wellness World

Social connections are seen as one way to energize a disconnected workforce.

There’s always that one trendy topic in wellness.

When I started blogging for Workforce a year ago, everyone I spoke to and everything I read raved about holistic wellness. In the past few months, I’m still hearing about it, but not as much as I hear the word “ergonomics.” Some HR folks love ergonomics because “sitting is the new smoking,” and some hate it because they’re tired of employees requesting fancy desks and presenting doctor’s notes to get one.

A few months ago Jeremy Nobel, medical director of the Northeast Business Group on Health, told me that the next topic to look out in the wellness space was loneliness. That struck a chord with me because I’d just seen the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which deals with the reality of loneliness in a very sad, funny and charming way. The main character is a lonely, isolated kid at his school and gains popularity when he creates a fake friendship via email with school bully Connor Murphy, who has just committed suicide. Everyone believes Evan, even though in reality they were never friends. The whole story is a testament to the power of social connection.

Nobel, also the president of the Foundation for Art & Healing, sees workplace isolation as a growing concern for employers, with the bottom line impact of increased medical expenses for lonely and isolated workers in addition to reduced job performance and productivity. “Feelings of significant loneliness burdens about 35% of the adult population at any one time, and people bring those feelings to work.” said Nobel, “Unless addressed, employees may not only be at risk for illness but will have a reduced ability to do their best work, collaborate and engage with co-workers, customers and business partners. While there is no single solution to isolation and loneliness in the workplace, recognizing it as an issue is a critical first step.”

So I was happy to come across a Harvard Business Review article on the topic of loneliness recently. It’s titled, “Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness,” and it speaks about the connection between social support at work and burnout rates. Written by researchers Emma Seppala and Marissa King, it cites that 50 percent of people are often or always exhausted because of work, a 32 percent increase from 20 years ago. “There is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel,” they write.

Loneliness, whether it’s caused by exhaustion or social isolation, can have real effects on a person’s health. Meanwhile, feeling socially connected can help strengthen the immune system and lower rates of depression and anxiety, according to the article. Similarly, a Harvard University study conducted for almost 80 years, between 1938 and 2017, found that “the people who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Seppala of Stanford University and Yale University’s King offer suggestions of what leaders and employers can do to address this problem in the workplace. One, celebrate collective successes to create an organizational sense of belonging. Two, promote a culture of empathy and inclusion.

Related story: “Burnout in Health Care and Beyond

But I was most interested in the third option: “Encourage employees throughout the organization to build developmental networks.” Seppala and King point out that in most companies, creating these networks of people whom employees can turn to for advice and support is mostly left up to chance. They suggest that employers help employees connect with potential mentors, coaches and peers.

Reading about this made me think of my own experiences and my friends’ workplace experiences with social connection (or lack thereof). For example, when I volunteered at the student radio station in college, a program director connected me with a Wisconsin Public Radio producer who let me shadow her, ask her questions about radio and ultimately learn things to improve my own show. Here at the Workforce office, a more experienced writer meets up with the associate editors and interns once a month to give us tips on our writing style, our current stories and whatever we have questions about.

My friend in California works at a company that recently did something pretty quirky in this area, too. Management decided to give its employees a half day one Friday and told them something along the lines of, “We’re happy to let you go home after the half day, but we’d prefer you use the time to connect with your co-workers for a couple hours.” The company offered the conference room for a game afternoon. My friend ended up playing Dungeons & Dragons with her co-workers on company time, and it was a valuable opportunity for them to interact with each other in a care-free environment — and still ultimately leave work two hours earlier than usual.

The main lesson I get from these anecdotes and experiences is that, whether management is making it a little easier for you to connect with mentors or peers, that extra connection either helps you be better or more comfortable at your job, which is valuable. Also, Dungeons & Dragons probably is not for every group of co-workers, but, hey, there’s some people out there who would enjoy it.

What about your company? Do you utilize any creative ways to connect people who could benefit from each other’s advice, support and experience?

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.