Is Loneliness a Workplace Epidemic?

Is the biggest health problem for your workforce the issue you hear the least about?

A recent online survey by Cigna found that most Americans consider themselves lonely and that this feeling is as bad for a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

More than half the respondents in the online poll said they always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well, while more than 40 percent said they lack companionship, their relationships are not meaningful, and they are isolated from others. The poll, The Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index, was completed earlier this year in conjunction with Ipsos.

“That so many Americans, particularly younger generations, feel such a significant lack of companionship and meaningful connection gives us a real and striking picture of how we perceive ourselves,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavior health. Generation Z, adults aged 18 to 22, and millennials, aged 23 to 37, were the two populations likeliest to be lonely; baby boomers and the so-called Greatest Generation were the least likely to be lonely.

The report did carry good news for employers: People who are employed are among the least likely to rate themselves as lonely, ahead of those who are unemployed, students or homemakers.

“The workplace gives a sense of community and social connectedness,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, program director at The Center for Workplace Mental Health. She, and others, however cautioned that companies need to be proactive to both help connect employees to each other and to find the right work/life balance.

How Companies Can Counter Loneliness

More companies are instituting regular informal meetings, sometimes called huddles, to ensure face-to-face conversations, says Nancy W. Spangler, a senior advisor and practitioner with Greenleaf Integrative. She even knows of one company that went so far as to formalize policy stating that employees should make eye contact and speak to each other when passing in hallways. “We must make sure we have regular face-to-face communication, even if it’s virtual,” Spangler adds.

“When people have regular, meaningful in-person interactions, they’re both less likely to be lonely and more likely to say they are in better health,” Nemecek says. “That’s really our most important finding.”

While it’s good practice for companies to connect employees to each other and to the company’s ethos, this work can also have positive results for a company’s bottom line and net worth, experts say. Because loneliness can lead to serious health concerns, addressing mental health issues and trying to prevent worker loneliness can reduce both healthcare costs and time away from work due to illness, which help boost productivity, Gruttadaro says.

According to a report by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, companies that have earned the C. Everett Koop National Health Award had triple the normal stock-market results of average companies.

HR leaders need to ensure team leaders and managers have better soft skills and that they can understand the challenges employees have both on and off the job, says Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, director of the Office for Total Worker Health at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. For instance, he says allowing workers flexible starting times can lower their stress without compromising their productivity.

Don’t Blame Technology

Although younger adults may be the loneliest people, most experts caution against blaming technology and its overuse on the lack of meaningful relationships for these age groups.

“Technology can be positive and negative,” Chosewood says. Using technology can impair people’s ability to form and keep the sort of long-lasting relationships that best stave off loneliness. However, the creation of online support groups and social-media platforms to connect people can deepen a person’s relationships if used well, he adds.

Spangler agrees that technology can help ease loneliness, citing X2AI’s psychotherapy chatbot that works by allowing users to share their feelings without the fear of being judged by a person.

According to a piece in the New Yorker, “X2AI describes its bots as therapeutic assistants, which means that they offer help and support rather than treatment.”

“As a result, the A.I.s have human minders–typically employees of the health-care company that licensed the bots, not of X2AI itself–who can ‘ghost in’ at will, assuming manual control over conversations. Any clear indication of self-harm or intent to harm others prompts human intervention, but there are disconcerting realms of ambiguity. Phrases such as ‘cut myself’ or ‘I’ve had enough’ are harmless if they refer to paper cuts or birthday cake, but not if they refer to people. The bots are designed to evaluate such statements in the broader context of a user’s personality and history: Is the person typically sarcastic, isolated, prone to outbursts?”

Going forward, Chosewood says, one question HR executives must confront is how to address loneliness in a dynamic workplace where more employees may telecommute or operate as independent consultants in a gig economy.

“These trends redefine what it means to have a job and be in the workplace,” Chosewood says.

Wayne D'Orio
Wayne D'Orio is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn. He can be reached at