America’s Loneliness Epidemic: A Risk to Individuals and Organizations
The demands of work and screen time have crowded out meaningful relationships. It's hurting people and the workplace.
Much has been written about America’s loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. But the word “loneliness” in the work context is a misnomer. It doesn’t capture the whole story. What about all the individuals who might not think of themselves as lonely and yet the demands of work and task-oriented activities such as time in front of screens have crowded out time for anything more than superficial relationships? Many people lack sufficient, positive human connection (or social connection) and may be unaware of the ramifications. Left unchecked, the deficiency of connection today presents widespread risks not just to individuals but to organizations.
From a biological standpoint, social connection is a primal human need. Its presence appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. In contrast, studies have shown that “disconnection” is unhealthy for individuals:
- Loneliness is associated with poorer cognitive performance, including poorer executive function and social cognition.
- Loneliness may impair executive control and self-regulation, including with respect to greater smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Social disconnectedness is related to lower levels of self-rated physical health.
- Loneliness is associated with substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.
Given these findings, it follows that researchers found greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role and relational performance. One might assume that the higher up the organization you go, the more connected you feel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Research reported in Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely and 61 percent of them believed it hindered their performance.
Prevalence of Social Disconnection
A considerable amount of evidence suggests that social disconnection is prevalent today. Based on its research findings, CIGNA reported data in 2018 that chronic loneliness in America has reached epidemic levels. This is consistent with an earlier analysis on the potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness.
Looking forward, it would appear that over the next decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Since 2011, research on adolescents has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices and less time interacting with each other, while also experiencing declining well-being. As artificial intelligence further increases the presence and role of machines in people’s day-to-day lives, an unintended consequence is that it may diminish people’s ability to connect.
The Role of Chronic Stress
Why is social disconnection problematic in the workplace? In answering this question one ought to address the topic of stress. While it is a term we often hear, it is difficult to fully comprehend the far-reaching psychological and physiological consequences associated with stress.
In measured amounts, stress serves to ready the nervous system for the task at hand. Here, odd as it sounds, stress can be a good thing. However, as Ted George, MD, of the National Institutes of Health describes in his book Untangling the Mind, stress can have negative effects. With increasing levels of stress, the nervous system processes the stress as a threat; and in extreme circumstances, stress moves the individual from being guided by rational thought processes to the instinctual responses characterized as “fight,” “flight” and “shutdown.”
When people experience chronic stress, they don’t feel well and often resort to ingesting substances or engaging in behaviors that provide temporary relief. The danger is that this may lead to developing addiction. In a review of 83 studies on addiction with at least 500 subjects, Sussman et al. (2011) found that nearly half the adult U.S. population suffers from one or more addictions that have “serious negative consequences.” The addictions studied included substance addictions (alcohol, eating disorders, mood-altering legal and illegal drugs, and tobacco) and process addictions (dependence upon busyness and work, exercise, gambling, online gaming or social media, shopping, love and sex).
One of the best-known means to cope with stress is to increase positive social connections. Being in an environment that fosters supportive relationships and human connection serves to stabilize the responses of the nervous system, preventing it from processing the stressor as a threat.
Cultures of Connection
UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes social connection as a “superpower” that makes individuals smarter, happier and more productive. Leaders at all levels of an organization would be wise to assess workplace culture through the lens of connection. Are attitudes, uses of language and behaviors drawing people together and connecting them? Or are they creating a stressful and/or relationally-toxic environment that pushes people apart?
In our research we found that cultures of connection are best for individual well-being and for helping organizations thrive too. Specifically, cultures of connection convey several performance advantages upon organizations including higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, superior decision-making, greater innovation and more adaptability to cope with rapid change taking place in the world today. These advantages add up to a powerful competitive advantage.
World’s Best Hospital Has Connection in its DNA
The power of connection is on full display at Mayo Clinic, America’s top-ranked hospital and arguably the best hospital in the world. From the time of its founding in 1889, Mayo Clinic has been intentional about cultivating connection and community. Dr. Charlie Mayo, one of the earliest leaders, communicated an attitude that valued connection and warned about the dangers of isolation when he stated: “Our failures as a profession are the failures of individualism, the result of competitive medicine. It must be done by collective effort.”
One of the ways this is manifest is in Mayo Clinic’s practice of compensating physicians through paying a salary rather than by an activity-based system. Not only does this promote collaboration for the good of the patient but it also alleviates the financial and time pressure of trying to see too many patients in a day, which often serves to diminish the physician-patient connection.
Mayo Clinic’s stated mission and values point to being guided by the intent of its founders, the original Mayo physicians and Sisters of St. Francis. Mayo Clinic’s mission is “To inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research” (italics mine). The language used to describe its values includes the following:
- “Compassion … [that treats] patients and family members with sensitivity and empathy,”
- “Healing [that nurtures] the well-being of the whole person, respecting physical, emotional and spiritual needs,”
- “Teamwork [that values] the contributions of all, blending the skills of individual staff members in unsurpassed collaboration,”
- “Innovation [that infuses and energizes] the organization, enhancing the lives of those we serve, through the creative ideas and unique talents of each employee,” and
- “Excellence [that delivers] the best outcomes and highest quality service through the dedicated effort of every team member.”
Notice that words and phrases that reflect and enhance connection are woven throughout: sensitivity, empathy, treating the whole person (including emotional and spiritual needs), teamwork, blending skills of the team, unsurpassed collaboration, each employee and every team member.
Mayo Clinic’s belief in the importance of connection goes beyond attitudes and language to practical steps taken to see that connection is infused in the culture. Mayo Clinic’s onboarding process for physicians and scientists includes extensive training in professionalism and communications, and assessments to help them develop emotional intelligence which is instrumental to connecting with others. Physician leaders are selected, developed and assessed based on their ability to connect, which includes listening, engaging, developing and leading other physicians. Informal opportunities for connection among colleagues is encouraged by providing dedicated meeting areas for physicians to gather in.
Mayo Clinic’s intentionality and commitment is evident in a program called COMPASS (COlleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction). Under this initiative, self-formed groups of 6-10 physicians get together for about an hour every other week, usually over breakfast or lunch, with up to $20 provided to each participant to cover the meal cost. During the meal, physicians spend at least 15 minutes focused on discussing assigned issues related to the physician experience, such as resiliency, medical mistakes, work-life balance and meaning at work. Mayo Clinic’s research has found that participants in COMPASS experience statistically significant improvements in multiple domains of wellbeing and satisfaction that will help reduce the risk of physician burnout and reduce medical errors.
What Leaders Can Do
Every organization would be wise to develop a culture of connection. Consider the U.S. Navy when Admiral Vernon Clark of Chief of Naval Operations, the connection culture of Costco, which Forbes and Statista research has consistently recognized as among the best large company employers in America, or the connection culture Alan Mually cultivated when he led the turnaround of Ford Motor Company.
Our current epidemic of social disconnection has arisen from multiple avenues including loneliness, social isolation, and the busyness and increased screen time of modern life crowding out time for face-to-face human connection. Social disconnection is making people more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. After one considers the prevalence and effects of social disconnection throughout an organization, it can be argued that social disconnection presents a systemic risk.
Connection matters. Organizations should be intentional about developing and sustaining cultures of connection that provide the structures and needed psychosocial support to foster inclusion and teamwork, minimize stress and reduce error— all of which will promote superior organizational outcomes. The net benefit amounts to better employee and organizational health, resilience and performance.
Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of "Connection Culture" (read the abstract here) and "Fired Up or Burned Out." To receive a 28-page "100 Ways to Connect" e-book, sample chapters of "Connection Culture," and Stallard's monthly email newsletter at no cost, sign up here.
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