Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 26, 2018.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spotlights the growing "loneliness epidemic," its risks to a person's health and happiness—and five ways to fight back, beginning in the workplace.
A 'growing health epidemic'
"Loneliness is growing health epidemic," Murthy writes, citing research showing that "rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s," with 40 percent of U.S. adults reporting feeling lonely.
In fact, Murthy writes that "during [his] years caring for patients, the most common pathology [he] saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness." And it had clinical ramifications for patients, Murthy adds. He points to research showing that "loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity."
He explains that loneliness is linked to stress, which is associated with elevated levels of cortisol—a stress hormone—and inflammation. "This in turn damages blood vessels and other tissues, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death," Murthy writes. "Chronic stress can also hijack your brain's prefrontal cortex, which governs decision making, planning, emotional regulation, analysis, and abstract thinking."
And loneliness isn't "just bad for our health; it's also bad for business," Murthy writes. According to Murthy, research shows that socially engaged employees are "more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured"—gains that "become losses" if employees don't feel engaged.
However, despite all this research, Murthy points out that society has not "focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity."
"It is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly," Murthy continues. And for that effort to succeed, it must include "the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace." According to Murthy, "Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients, but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness."
5 steps to foster social connection at work
Murthy writes that "while it may seem easy enough to organize a team-building event, grab a cup of coffee with a colleague, or chat with people around the water cooler about 'Game of Thrones,' real connection requires creating an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace."
He outlines five steps to "build healthy and productive relationships" in the workplace:
2. Foster understanding for what a 'high-quality' relationship looks like. While "there is a tendency to look at [the] positive emotions" associated with high-quality relationships as "'soft,'", "research increasingly shows that positive emotions"—such as kindness, compassion, and generosity—"enhance performance and resilience," Murthy writes. So "be clear with employees and colleagues about the types of relationships you want to see at work and what types of actions, like generosity, foster those relationships."
3. Prioritize the development of social connections. According to Murthy, "Designing and modeling a culture that supports connection is more important than any single program," and that approach requires senior-level buy-in with leaders who set examples in their own interaction and vulnerability. Murthy writes, "Ask yourself if the current culture and policies in your institution support the development of trusted relationships."
4. Urge workers to help others—and to accept help themselves. "Although it may seem counterintuitive to assist others when you are feeling lonely, extending help to others and allowing yourself to receive help builds a connection that is mutually affirming," Murthy writes. "Giving and receiving help freely is one of the most tangible ways we experience our connections with each other."
5. Create opportunities to learn about colleagues' personal lives. According to Murthy, "The likelihood that authentic social connections will develop is greater when people feel understood and appreciated as individuals with full lives," Murthy writes. And everyone is able to foster the kind of social spaces that encourage personal connection, "whether it is in a formal gathering or an informal conversation over lunch."
"The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness," Murthy writes, and "if we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart—in the workplace and in society." He concludes, "We must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities—and that ensure greater health and well-being for all of us" (Murthy, Harvard Business Review, 10/4).
How leading organizations are addressing loneliness—and other critical psychosocial risk factors
This research report makes the case for incorporating psychosocial needs into ongoing care, offers a blueprint for staff deployment across different interventions, and provides 18 case studies of providers that have successfully tailored interventions based on psychosocial needs.