Worker loneliness was on the rise even before the pandemic upended the workplace. According to Cigna’s Loneliness Index, 61% of adults were feeling lonely in 2019, a 7% increase over the previous year. Pre-pandemic, more than 80% of Gen Zers were feeling lonely, with the growing use of social media a primary factor. And now, as they join a workforce that’s largely remote, young workers have fewer opportunities to form bonds with others.
The pandemic didn’t cause our epidemic of employee loneliness; it worsened the one we already had. Loneliness, distinct from social isolation, concerns how a person perceives their connection with others and how they feel about it. A person can feel lonely whether they’re alone or not.
Clearly, the solution to loneliness isn’t simply bringing people back into the office. To reverse the loneliness trend, employers need to take a more innovative approach to foster a culture of belonging and well-being.
Worker loneliness is an urgent employer problem
Loneliness isn’t just a bad feeling; it’s a risk factor for more serious physical and mental health issues. When a person experiences loneliness, their cortisol levels rise, impairing their cognitive abilities and increasing their risk for inflammation, vascular problems, and heart disease. Chronic loneliness also puts a person at higher risk for anxiety and depression. In fact, people with mental health issues are more than twice as likely to be lonely as those with good mental health.
The cost to employers is high. Loneliness can reduce creativity, erode performance, and leave employees emotionally exhausted. An employee who feels lonely is up to five times more likely to miss work due to stress and twice as likely to consider quitting. A lonely worker can cost employers up to $4,200 a year in lost workdays.
Employers need to combat workforce loneliness not only to reverse these trends but also to improve employee and organizational health. Strong connections with others can generate positive feedback loops in our brains and bodies, promoting the physical, emotional, and social well-being critical to productivity and performance.
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10 ways to combat workforce loneliness
As your organization defines the future of work, you have an opportunity to establish a culture of empathy, interdependence, and belonging. Here are 10 ideas for reducing workforce loneliness and building a healthier organization.
- Design teams to be enduring. Research has shown that workforce loneliness is exacerbated by modern team design, i.e., fluid teams with several short-term or part-time members. You should focus on creating enduring teams with clear missions, explicit interaction norms, and stable membership.
- Train managers on empathy. To encourage employees to speak up, train managers to establish an environment of psychological safety and empathy. Forming empathy circles to allow employees to share challenges and learn coping strategies is one idea. Research has shown that employees will take interpersonal risks—e.g., ask questions, admit errors, or reach out to colleagues—when they know they have the support of leaders and teammates. Find out how Ogilvy improved workforce well-being with a Mindful Manager program delivered with Calm Business.
- Benchmark and track loneliness in the organization. Have managers proactively and periodically talk to their employees to discern the degree of loneliness and quality of connections on their teams, say organizational experts Constance Hadley and Mark Mortenson. As an intervention, they recommend creating “core” or “home base” teams defined by where people spend the majority of their time or by shared interests.
- Reward employees for supporting others. Employers that reward employees for building relationships with and supporting colleagues see higher employee satisfaction and happiness. Evolve your performance management system to factor this behavior into criteria for bonuses and promotions. On a more informal basis, introduce a system for gratitude notes and peer-to-peer recognition.
- Apply savings from downsized office space to company retreats or offsites. Carve out funding early in the year and commit to holding in-person events that help employees form connections. Make these events a priority and protect them from budget cuts.
- Support employees in creating social clubs. Encourage employees to form cohorts around a hobby and meet in person at least once a month. Outside of social clubs, encourage remote employees to connect socially with a colleague on a regular basis, virtually or in person.
- Support the development of employee resource groups. To support underrepresented groups in your workforce, develop a framework to help them establish and run an employee resource group (ERG) effectively. Here are some tips for getting started.
- Actively support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Celebrate cultural heritage months with your organization’s ERGs. Develop an annual calendar of heritage and awareness months and plan your events (virtual and/or in-person) and communications well in advance. Learn how Kraft Heinz uses Calm Business to support its DEIB efforts and foster employee mental well-being.
- Bring people together with mindfulness. Provide tools to help employees practice mindfulness in their day-to-day work experience. For example, encourage managers to start meetings with a short, 60-second meditation so employees can pause for a mindfulness break. Or, to help employees build strong, healthy relationships, encourage them to try Calm’s Relationships with Others Series by Tamara Levitt.
- Adopt preventive mental health solutions to help employees manage feelings of loneliness. Proactively support the mental well-being of your workforce with preventive tools that will help them address loneliness as well as reduce anxiousness and get better sleep. Calm offers content specifically focused on supporting employees who are struggling with loneliness, including the following:
- Combating Loneliness, with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
- On Loneliness, with Julia Bainbridge, host of The Lonely Hour podcast
- Aloneness, with mindfulness expert Tamara Levitt
Calm Business delivers clinically proven outcomes, including better sleep, reduced stress and anxiousness, and improved mindfulness. Calm’s comprehensive, diverse, and highly accessible mental wellness resources are designed to support the broad spectrum of needs across your workforce.
For more information on how Calm for Business can provide mental health resources to support your employees, book a demo today.