How Loneliness Affects Health
We have all heard of and experienced bouts of loneliness, but did you realize loneliness can affect your health? And do we really understand what loneliness is?
There is a clinical definition of loneliness, and it is not necessarily about being alone. It is about the perception of being alone and isolated that matters most.
Loneliness is a state of mind and a subjective negative feeling of disconnectedness or social isolation.
Feeling lonely and socially isolated can, in fact, be very valid. The question is why and how do we combat the negative health effects of social isolation in the workplace?
Feeling Isolated at Work
The New Office
Offices have changed in the last decade. Cubicles and rooms with doors are a thing of the past. Most offices adhere to open-plan office spaces where there is little privacy. In theory, since everyone is face to face they are connected because there are no walls, no doors that separate co-workers. But this atmosphere can also promote a feeling of disconnectedness. Co-workers are more likely to communicate electronically and not talk or have social interactions, in order to not disrupt one another.
The Organization Suffers
The Harvard Business Review research shows that 40% of American adults report suffering from loneliness, which is double the rate from the 1980s.
The Harvard Business Review also states that when isolated employees feel that certain relationships are not worth the effort, that decision widens out to more potential connections within the organization. When social ties begin to fray among team members, a willingness to communicate and collaborate based on feelings of trust disintegrates. When work depends on these relationships, entire teams and even larger departments within the organization can suffer long term consequences.
It’s Just a Feeling
Loneliness is more than “just a feeling.” Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cites loneliness at work as a growing health epidemic. He explains that
chronic loneliness can translate to a reduced lifespan equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This makes loneliness an even greater threat than obesity to the American worker. But unfortunately, unlike weight loss programs and all the programs that encourage you to quit smoking, there is not much attention paid to combating employee isolation and loneliness in the workplace.
Remember that loneliness is not about being alone. According to many experts, it is a feeling of social isolation. You can be in an open office and feel isolated from your colleagues.
Although offices have added email, texts and messaging to be more efficient, this efficiency also adds to less social contact. The diminishing of face to face interactions in the office adds to the social isolation which only fuels the feeling of loneliness.
More recent studies agree that perceived social isolation and the internal experience of loneliness or rejection is the problem. But it is the perceived feeling that makes it so damaging!
Loneliness is the disease that is literally hiding in plain sight. 2018 research found that those with fewer than three people they could confide in and count on for social support were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those with more confidants. These people are also (roughly) twice as likely to die of all causes, even when age, income, and smoking status were comparable.
The Effects of Loneliness
According to Verywell Mind, loneliness can affect both physical and mental health including:
- Increase the possibility of depression and suicide
- Increase the possibility of cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Increased stress levels
- Decreased memory and learning
- Antisocial behavior
- Poor decision making
- Alcoholism and drug abuse
- The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
- Altered brain function
Psychology Today reports that more than just a mindset, loneliness causes serious hurt, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain. Simply chronic loneliness can lead to chronic disease. It affects not only the individual detrimentally, but it also hinders your workplace productivity. The employee who is feeling isolated is hurting themselves both physically and emotionally. Their bouts of loneliness are not just limited to him/her though.
Effects of Loneliness in the Workplace
A study in the Academy of Management Journal concluded that “being lonely is associated with lower job performance.” Researchers found that “greater employee loneliness led to a poorer task, team role and relational performance.” They suggested that mangers view workplace loneliness as “an organizational problem” that should be actively addressed rather than treat work loneliness as a “private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees.” Team members suffer when a lonely member withdraws from work and is less productive. This hinders the team’s effectiveness.
A 2012 study (as quoted by the New York Times) of more than 650 workers found that loneliness, reported by both the sufferer and his or her co-workers, reduces an employee’s productivity. This was true on both individual and team-oriented tasks.
One of the first things to remember when combating chronic loneliness is to remember it is about quality, not quantity. Surrounding the socially isolated employee with more colleagues does not help overcome the loneliness if none of the relationships are substantial.
Angie LeRoy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, did a cold study observing the discrepancy between the patient’s actual and desired social relationships. LeRoy’s study concluded that loneliness is a perceptual state that depends more on the quality of a person’s relationships than on the sheer number.
People with few friends can feel fulfilled, while people with vast social networks can feel empty and disconnected. What LeRoy and her colleagues found was that perceived loneliness was a far bigger risk factor than sheer isolation.
“It’s all about how the person feels. Feelings really matter.”
Even with the subjectivity of loneliness, there are steps you can do to combat it:
- When a new person comes into your company, make sure she/he is getting quality support.
- Show appreciation. A “Thank You” goes a long way.
Send a note of appreciation for completing a task.
- Get outside planning that involves employee lunches or meetups. Hosting social events that are non-work related can encourage more meaningful interactions.
Recognizing that your employee is feeling isolated is the first step. The next step is finding a solution that embraces the employee(s) without shame or unwanted attention. Inclusion is the key.
There is no easy fix for combating loneliness, but there are positive steps that you can take. One step is inclusion. And to that end, we can help build meaningful connections between your employees.
Build Meaningful Relationships at Work
Today, people are every company’s biggest asset. Developing social relationships extends life expectancy and increases productivity, happiness and employee satisfaction. We created Plan2Play for Work to help HR professionals and business owners increase internal social interactions, which helps produce better customer service, great products, and above all provide an amazing company culture!
We are passionate about connecting individuals through activities they love. Let us help you become the company everyone wants to work for!