Loneliness: The Next Employee Wellness Frontier

March 26, 2018

Loneliness should be as important to managers and executives as it is to therapists.  According to a survey of U.S. adults, more than 70% of Americans feel a sense of loneliness, with nearly a third (31%) experiencing loneliness at least once a week.  In conjunction with research showing loneliness having the same health care outcomes and costs as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, most employers are not giving the condition enough attention.  It remains as a hidden and growing drain on the health of employees and the companies they work for, costing employers in the United Kingdom an estimated $3.5 billion.  Also, lonely workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months.  Feeling a lack of workplace social support was associated with similar negative business outcomes.

Who’s At Risk?

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Unlike emerging wellness trends such as financial and mental health, the amount of employer-specific research on loneliness is limited, especially as it relates to remediation strategies.  Before employers try to guess their way to resolving the problem, it makes sense to look at the limited research out there.  Most notably, a survey from BetterUp helps identify types of employees most at risk for feeling lonely at work as well as key drivers that maximize the benefits of increased social cohesion among employees.

The biggest indicator of loneliness came from demographic differences as it relates to private lives.  For example, childless singles were lonelier than people in relationships and atheists and agnostics were lonelier than members of religious communities.  This finding may make employers want to jump to the conclusion that loneliness, albeit a big problem, is outside of their control.  This would be a mistake and will be addressed later in the post.

The survey found that loneliness was higher with individuals with more education, with employees with graduate degrees reporting higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than employees with undergraduate or high school degrees.  Also, employees with professional degrees (e.g., law, medicine, etc.) reported the greatest amount of loneliness (25% lonelier than bachelor’s degrees and 20% lonelier than PhDs).

The survey also found that demographic information, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and income, were poor indicators of loneliness.  However, profession was a good indicator with legal, engineering, and science professionals reporting the greatest amount of loneliness.  Government employees were lonelier than for-profit and nonprofit workers.  Employers in these industries have an even greater incentive to implement initiatives to address loneliness.

 

What Can Employers Do?

Knowing which populations are most susceptible to loneliness doesn’t help employers address the crisis at their organization.  The survey found social support at the workplace is critical to combatting loneliness.  Employees reporting above average social support were less likely to quit their jobs as well as more likely to have received a raise in the past six months.  Small changes from employers, such as promoting peer-based praise or lunches with colleagues, can help foster social support and go a long way to mitigating the adverse effects of loneliness.  Another study suggests that the single most impactful leadership behavior to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues.

From a traditional employee wellness perspective, employers can foster social support in existing wellness programs by creating team-based initiatives, offering public praise for participants hitting certain goals, and having rewards programs that have shared prizes, such as a group outing.  Since many employers already invest in certain areas of wellness, the cost impact to counteract loneliness should be negligible.

Topics: Corporate Wellness

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