Loneliness is a growing epidemic in society at large and the workplace, writes Dr. Vivek H. Murthy in the Harvard Business Review. Murthy, who served as Surgeon General in the Obama administration, cites recent research finding that 40 percent of Americans report feeling lonely (a number that in reality is probably higher, he writes) and that many employees and half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their jobs.
It’s bad for the workplace and bad for our health, Murthy asserts in the piece, titled “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.” During his work as a physician and as Surgeon General, he witnessed firsthand the ravages that chronic loneliness can have on people’s mental and physical health. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” Murthy writes. Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety, while in in the workplace it reduces task performance, limits creativity and impairs reasoning and decision-making.
Humans evolved as social creatures, depending on the cooperation of others to help fight off predators, find food sources and create shelter. We’re hardwired for socialization, Murthy notes, but in today’s society opportunities for socializing seem to be ever scarcer. The rise of telework, short-term gigs and screen-focused work — in which we sit in front of computers for most of the day, often with headphones stuck in our ears — means it’s increasingly likely we know next to nothing about the people we work with or sit next to.
That’s not just a sad state of affairs; it’s harming productivity and innovation, Murthy asserts. He cites research by Gallup that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work. People with strong work connections can handle stress better and enjoy better health, he writes, while workers who feel they have high-stress jobs have markedly higher healthcare costs than low-stress employees.
What to do? Murthy cites an example of what he did during his time as Surgeon General, where he oversaw a fast-growing staff of people who didn’t know each other very well. To bring people together, Murthy instituted “Inside Scoop,” in which staff members would take five minutes during weekly meetings to tell their colleagues something about themselves. In one case, a former Marine officer spoke about his complex relationship with his father and how his children’s musical talents reminded him of his dad. “As he spoke, his eyes glistened,” Murthy writes. “I felt a deep connection to him in that moment and was inspired by his honesty and compelled to reflect on my own relationships. Even though we were close before, my relationship with him became even stronger that day.”
Small steps can make a difference in making a workplace feel more warm and hospitable, and less lonely, Murthy suggests. On a deeper level, he writes, an organization’s leaders can make strengthening social connections a priority by modeling this behavior through building stronger connections with other team members and examining whether a company’s culture and policies support the development of trusted relationships.
Murthy’s own strong bonds with his colleagues eased his path through the many difficult and stressful moments of his medical residency, he writes, and helped make him a better doctor. The stakes are high, he warns, for the workplace and society at large:
If we cannot rebuild stronger, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and society. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners, angry, sick and alone.”