Loneliness in the Workplace
A Growing Population Health and Employee Engagement Concern
There’s been an alarming increase in the rate of loneliness and isolation in our society, making it one of today’s most urgent public health concerns. Importantly, to the surprise of many, the health burden goes beyond the well-known behavioral triad of depression, substance abuse and suicide, to increased risk of physical illness. Recent well performed epidemiologic studies have indicated that loneliness is associated with an increase of premature mortality risk of 30% (on par with smoking), likely due to immunosuppression and increased cardiovascular risk.
So in short, loneliness not only makes you miserable, but can kill you. The epidemic of loneliness is especially ironic in this age of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where despite growing networks of “friends”, individuals of all ages are struggling more than ever with developing an authentic connection with others and establishing a reliable sense of belonging.
Increased Mortality Risk from Smoking
Increased Mortality Risk from Loneliness
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Why is this a workplace issue?
Studies show that almost a third of the U.S. feels significantly lonely in their public lives, such as at their job. You might think that the hive mentality found in many workplaces would be an antidote for those experiencing episodes of loneliness. But often it actually masks the issue because individuals don’t want to appear weak or vulnerable in today’s work environments of cubicle farms and competitive jockeying for the spotlight. As a result, employees dealing with the isolating burdens of stress, major illness and chronic conditions, PTSD and other post-deployment challenges, transgender and sexual identity issues, caregiving and other family related responsibilities, or just the day to day challenges of modern life, bring those concerns to the workplace, along with the toll they exact.
What’s more, the toll isn’t only on an individual’s mental and physical health, but impairs teamwork and collaboration. As recently reported on in Fortune, a prominent study identified that workgroups suffer when even one member is exhibiting symptoms of loneliness. As the lonely member withdraws from work and is less productive, co-workers recognize and respond, often hindering team effectiveness. Steven Miranda, managing director at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies has noted that loneliness is causing a decrease in what he calls “discretionary effort.” It’s the difference between those that show up at the office in the morning eager to get started, and those that can’t wait for 5 o’clock. “I would bet my bottom dollar that people who are lonely and disengaged at work deliver far less discretionary effort than people who have a support system or a go-to person [at work],” he says.
But human resource departments are in a prime position to offer programs for alleviating the burden of loneliness, including various team-building activities and promoting volunteerism for worthy causes. In particular, we believe programs that utilize creative arts expression in various ways are especially appealing. These programs, delivered either face to face or online, offer evidenced based interventions that allow participants to use creative work to better “connect” with themselves and others through structured art making, sharing and mindful reflection. They are low cost, easy to promote and deploy, popular, suited to the diversity of the modern workplace and increasingly accepted as a reliable method for helping individuals form meaningful connections with others. Even when done anonymously through a digital exchange platform, a “sharing bond” is formed between those creating and those interpreting what’s created: a photo, a video clip, a shared expressive thought or feeling, a personal story.
How The UnLoneliness Project is helping
The Foundation for Art & Healing, in partnership and collaboration with other community health stakeholders including the Americans for the Arts and the Northeast Business Group on Health has created a signature initiative, The UnLoneliness Project, to provide a platform for connecting with this vulnerable workplace population. Our mission is to show how simple creative expression programs, based on scientifically proven approaches, can have profound and sustained health and well-being benefits. The Project incorporates low-cost, easy-to-deploy programs and tools that are fun, engaging and convenient. Our approach is designed to introduce awareness of the burden of loneliness, deliver creative-based approaches to engage affected employees, and then measure and report on outcomes from Project activities.
Get started now at your workplace with this download!
As we launch this signature initiative, we’re working with partners to increase awareness of workplace loneliness and isolation challenges and its burden to employers and employees, as well as making available innovative programs and intervention strategies to address it. We’re already in encouraging discussions with several major employers and service delivery partners who want to be actively involved in the design, deployment, evaluation, and optimization of this breakthrough approach.
We’re building on work the Foundation for Art & Healing has done in other conditions and environments, we are confident our “starter kit” of awareness aids and program tools will be well received and show rapid and important results. We invite you to join with us as we expand our focus to address the public health crisis of loneliness within the workplace, and look forward to sharing more information with you as the UnLoneliness Project moves forward.
Read about our Launch Event, including a gallery of pictures from the festivities.