Loneliness: the new workplace health epidemic

Recent research suggests there is an emerging health hazard in the workplace, impacting employee wellbeing, performance and engagement. What can we do to combat loneliness, touted recently as the new workplace epidemic?¹⋅²

With many of us spending hours in front of a computer, or on our tablets or our phones we tend to have a stronger relationship with our digital devices than with other people. Even at work, despite interacting with and being surrounded by others, most of our colleagues are more connected to their computers. This is having a significant impact on our health and wellbeing.

Vivek Murthy recently wrote that loneliness has similar impacts on our longevity to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.¹ Murthy found that people who had stronger relationships at work tended to be more engaged, productive and experienced better health. Better social connections were seen a key protective factor in the prevention of mental health issues. And was also good for business.

Loneliness has similar impacts on our longevity to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Psychologists at the University of Chicago found that lonely people had significantly more trouble bouncing back from life’s stresses and strains.³ This supports the positive psychology understanding of positive connections as one of the key elements of resilience.

Research cited by VicHealth found that better social support was correlated with improved mental health.⁴ They describe social connectedness as having someone to talk to, trust and depend on.

Given many of us spend more time at work with our colleagues than with our family or friends, workplaces can play a key role in improving our social connectedness.

What your workplace can do to foster social connections

  • Encourage a supportive culture where colleagues reach out to help others who have challenging work loads.
  • Create opportunities to learn about others' personal lives. This might be through team meetings where each team member shares something they are looking forward to on the weekend, or something that they enjoyed doing with their friends or family recently.
  • Encourage people to bring in a plate of food that is from their country of origin and ask them to describe why they like this particular dish.
  • Think creatively about how colleagues can share more of their experiences with other colleagues. Encourage colleagues who may have returned to their team from a secondment or transfer to present what they learned, who they met, and the one thing they are going to do differently as a result of that experience.
  • Consider having a 'buddy' system for new employees when they commence.

Helena Kuo is a Partner and workplace facilitator at En Masse, mental health trainers and behaviour change enablers. Phone 03 9429 8441.

References

  1. urthy V, 2017, 'Work and the loneliness epidemic', Harvard Business Review, September 2017, accessed October 2017. https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic
  2. Rath T, Harter J, 2010, 'Your friends and your social wellbeing', Gallup News: Business Journal,  19 August, accessed October 2017. http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/127043/friends-social-wellbeing.aspx
  3. Hawkley L, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Ann Behav Med. 2010 Oct; 40(2).
  4. VicHealth. 'Social inclusion as a determinant of mental health and wellbeing'. Updated 16 December 2014, accessed October 2017. https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/search/social-inclusion-as-a-determinant-of-mental-health-and-wellbeing