The adage “it’s lonely at the top” rings true for many executives. People who have reached leadership positions often report feeling disengaged from their colleagues.1 This is not surprising because independence and competitiveness are often required to achieve this level of success, limiting opportunities to establish close, meaningful connections with colleagues.
Loneliness, however, is a factor for all working adults, not just those at the top. This prompted former United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.Sc., to write in the Harvard Business Review “Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.”2
Dr. Murthy builds a compelling case about the importance of reducing loneliness in the workplace with these key points:
- Lonely workers are unhealthy.3,4,5 Social isolation and lack of social support are associated with a host of negative health consequences, including:
- Greater risk of cardiovascular disease
- Compromised immunity
- Increased risk of depression
- Shortened lifespan
- Isolation in the workplace is costly. Lack of social support can lead to mental sluggishness that impairs productivity, stifles creativity, and hinders decision-making.6 This directly impacts a company’s revenue, spending, and organizational performance. The mental and physical effects of social isolation lead to higher costs for sick leave and health insurance claims. On the flip side, positive social relationships strengthen employee retention and productivity—positively impacting the bottom line.7
- The modern work place is inadvertently contributing to the challenge. Telework and contracting arrangements offer employees flexibility and for many, improved quality of life. But they also increase isolation and decrease a sense of belonging.8 Dr. Murthy notes that even in communal office environments, such as open floor plans, most workers are focused on productivity and task completion leaving little time for building social connections.
What can employers do to create workplace social connections?
Here are five strategies recommended by Dr. Murthy:
- Evaluate the organization’s current state of social connection by asking employees whether they feel valued and whether the corporate culture supports connectedness.
- Build understanding at all levels about high-quality relationships at work.
- Make strengthening social connections an organization-wide strategic priority.
- Encourage employees to seek help when needed and to help each other.
- Create opportunities for employees to learn more about each other, including personal experiences and interests outside of work.
It’s time to make reducing isolation at work a higher priority. Companies are uniquely positioned to strengthen social connections that improve employee health.
Dr. Murthy warns that ignoring connectedness could have grave consequences: “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.”
As your organization focuses on improving the bottom line, include social connection in analyzing key factors contributing to organizational performance.
About the Author
Emily A. Kuhl, Ph.D., owner and operator of Right Brain/Left Brain, LLC, is a consultant to the Center for Workplace Mental Health and a medical writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area.
- Rovach A. Leadership and loneliness. Intl J Leadership Change. 2014; 2.
- Murthy V. Work and the loneliness epidemic. Harvard Business Review. September 2017.
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):227-37.
- Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, Norman GJ, Berntson GG. Social isolation. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011; 1231:17-22.
- Mushtaq R, Shoib S, Shah T, Mushtaq S. Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014; 8(9):WE01-4.
- Cacioppo S, Capitanio JP, Cacioppo JT. Toward a neurology of loneliness. Psychol Bull. 2014; 140(6):1464-504.
- Wagner SL, White MI, Schultz IZ, Williams-Whitt K, Koehn C, Dionne CE, Koehoorn M, et al. Social Support and Supervisory Quality Interventions in the Workplace: A Stakeholder-Centered Best-Evidence Synthesis of Systematic Reviews on Work Outcomes. Int J Occup Environ Med. 2015; 6(4):189-204.
- Allen TD, Golden TD, Shockley KM. How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2015; 16(2):40-68.