Defeating Loneliness it this Social Media World
Chances are, you or someone you know has been struggling with loneliness. And that can be a serious problem.
Loneliness and weak real 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.
But, we have not focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity.
Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
In the workplace, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic now.
Once we understand the profound human and economic costs of loneliness, we must determine whose responsibility it is to address the problem.
The US government and healthcare system have important roles to play in helping us understand the impact of loneliness, identifying who is affected, and determining which interventions work.
But to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace.
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.
Loneliness is the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections.
Why has this feeling increased over past decades?
Well, partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family.
Today, more people report living alone than at any time since the census began collecting this data. In the workplace, new models of working, such as telecommuting and some on-demand “gig economy” contracting arrangements have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships.
And even working at an office does not guarantee meaningful connections.
People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan work-spaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.
Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships?
On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about, do they understand our values, do they share in our triumphs and pains?
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s.
Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.
Plus, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees and 50% of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles.
This isn’t just bad for our health, it is also bad for business.
Researchers for Gallup found that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured. Without strong social connections, these gains become losses.
Connection can also help indirectly by enhancing self-esteem and self-efficacy while also shifting our experience toward positive emotions, all of which can buffer an individual during stressful situations and have positive effects on health. Indeed, studies have found that companies whose workers feel they have high-stress jobs have markedly higher health care expenditures than their counterparts with low-stress employees.
Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.
A more connected society and work force is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout.
We know that if we are to prioritize our health and the health of our companies, the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections. And 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.
Below are 5 deliberate steps that can help build healthy and productive relationships, as follows:
- Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace. Strong social connections are not simply about the number of friends and family members one has; it’s the quality of those connections that matters more. You can be surrounded by many people and have thousands of connections on LinkedIn or Facebook and still be lonely. Conversely, you can have just a handful of people with whom you interact and feel very connected. To assess the quality of the relationships at your organization, here are some questions to consider: Do employees feel that their colleagues genuinely value and care for them? Do they believe their institution has a culture that supports giving and receiving kindness? Would they characterize their relationships with colleagues as being driven more by love or by fear?
- Build understanding of high-quality relationships. Strong social connections are characterized by meaningful shared experiences and mutually beneficial 2-way relationships, where both individuals give and receive. High-quality relationships must be grounded in love and informed by kindness, compassion, and generosity. There is a tendency to look at such positive emotions as “soft” and even as a liability that distorts judgment and impairs tough decision making. But research increasingly shows that positive emotions enhance performance and resilience. 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.
- Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.Designing and modeling a culture that supports connection is more important than any single program. It will require buy-in and engagement from all levels of the organization, particularly leadership. Having senior members of an organization invest in building strong connections with other team members can set a powerful example, especially when leaders are willing to demonstrate that vulnerability can be a source of strength, not weakness. Ask yourself if the current culture and policies in your institution support the development of trusted relationships.
- Encourage coworkers to reach out and help others, and accept help when it is offered. Although it may seem counter-intuitive 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. Late one night during my residency training, I was managing a busy intensive care unit when one of my colleagues stopped and offered to help with a sudden influx of critically ill patients. Because of his generosity, we were able to rapidly place specialized catheters in patients with bloodstream infections and get them life-saving antibiotics quickly. We worked together for only an hour that night, but the connection we built lasted years. Giving and receiving help freely is one of the most tangible ways we experience our connections with each other.
- Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives. The likelihood that authentic social connections will develop is greater when people feel understood and appreciated as individuals with full lives, as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, individuals with passions outside of work, concerned citizens and community members. Everyone in an organization has the power to create spaces for sharing, whether it is in a formal gathering or an informal conversation over lunch.
The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness.
If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart, in the workplace and in society.
Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners, angry, sick, and alone. 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
Help to heal one another, come together.
By Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, MD (USN)
Paul Ebeling, Editor
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively
Editor’s Note: Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy (@vivek_murthy) served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017. As Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy commanded the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of 6,600 public health offices serving vulnerable populations in 800 locations domestically and abroad. During his tenure, he helped address critical public health issues, including the Ebola outbreak, the Zika virus, low rates of physical activity, and the explosion in e-cigarette use among youth. In 2016, he launched the TurnTheTideRx campaign to combat the opioid epidemic.
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