During a February presentation at the Harvard School of Public Health Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize-winning economist spoke about the rise in preventable deaths by suicide, alcoholism and addiction calling them “deaths of despair.”
Public Health researchers around the world have started to recognize that loneliness plays a significant role in these deaths of despair and, as a result, loneliness has become a public health priority.
Social isolation has a profound influence on health and mortality risk. Research summarized in an article in the Harvard Business Review has demonstrated that “while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50% loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%.”
Loneliness affects a great number of working adults, especially people coping with bereavement, illness, return from military service, immigrant issues and social isolation.
However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that loneliness is not simply a result of social isolation but is also due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout. The more people are exhausted, the more likely they are to feel lonely.
So how can leaders help create workplaces which lead to higher connectedness, reduced isolation and loneliness, lower rates of burnout and greater work satisfaction and productivity?
- Promote an inclusive and empathetic workplace culture. Research conducted by Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan’s business school makes a compelling case that workplaces that foster caring, supportive, respectful and empathetic relationships lead to improved health and productivity outcomes for individual employees as well as improved organizational performance.
- Encourage employees to build self-development networks. Kathy Kram (Boston University) and Monica Higgins (Harvard School of Education) have written extensively about the value of individuals creating their own developmental networks at work. These networks function like a board of directors for the individual’s career- providing mentoring and support in everyday work life challenges and opportunities. Most companies leave the creation of these networks up to chance, however, organizations can take proactive steps (like assigning on boarding partners) to foster them.
- Celebrating team successes helps to create a sense of belonging and attachment and building solidarity is a key bulwark against burnout.
- Reduce incivility in the workplace. Bullying and harassment are the most obvious culprits increasing social isolation at work. Leaders should encourage employees to speak out when they see rudeness, unacceptable language, intolerant behavior, gossiping or intimidation. “Small steps in confronting incivility can lead to positive changes in a company’s culture.”
- Develop systems for hiring, teaching and rewarding collegiality. Research conducted at Carnegie-Mellon and M.I.T. demonstrates that liking your coworkers is an essential element of high-performing teams.
Massachusetts General Hospital, consistently rated as one of the top hospitals in the country includes 3 powerful words in every training session: Never Worry Alone. They understand that the most damaging effects of worry are mitigated by communicating that concern to someone else.
The most successful organizations are finding ways to minimize the social isolation of employees so that they can creatively collaborate with their peers to solve problems, serve customers and achieve organizational goals.