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Creating Connections at Work: Healing the Loneliness Epidemic

BY: Cory Smith // Co-Founder & CEO • Wisdom Labs

Loneliness is on the rise, particularly in the workplace. It might seem ironic that with myriad ways to stay connected with our colleagues—including chat and messaging services like Slack or virtual meeting platforms like GoToMeeting—more of us are feeling more socially disconnected than ever. This can be bad news for organizations and our overall wellbeing—and it’s getting worse.

In a study of over 20,000 adults in the United States in 2018, global health service company Cigna found that nearly half of those surveyed said that they feel alone or left out in various situations and contexts. The youngest respondents—those in Generation Z, aged 18-22—were the most lonely, presenting a challenge for newer hires.1 And a recent Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of respondents felt that they had a best friend at work.2

Lack of connection with colleagues at work can reduce productivity, employee engagement, and retention. A study by the New Economics Foundation estimates that UK employers lose £2.5 billion a year, in part because of staff turnover, reduced productivity, and illness.3

And dozens of scientific studies have shown that loneliness can take a dramatic toll on individual wellbeing, causing chronic inflammation, heart disease, depression, and even early death.

Workplace leaders seeking to improve both employee and organizational wellness would be smart to include resources aimed at fostering connection between individuals and across teams, creating opportunities for socializing, and cultivating company culture that values openness and communication.

But what is loneliness, and why is it so harmful?

More than Being Alone

Loneliness is, of course, different than just being alone.

Occasional and intentional solitude can provide opportunities for reflection, creativity, and rest, particularly for those who are more inclined to introversion. In fact, introverted people are far more likely to seek out “alone time” to reenergize from being around colleagues at work or even spending time at social gatherings. But even introverts crave meaningful relationships and seek out friendships; in fact, they’re more likely to want deeper connections with friends than extraverts.

No matter what our personality type, we can feel even more alone when surrounded by people. The once popular open office plan—originally lauded for its potential to foster connection, collaboration, and reduce office hierarchies—has been since shown to reduce employee productivity, satisfaction, and creativity.4 Workers in an open office are more likely to wear noise-cancelling headphones while emailing a co-worker about a project than to meet with them in person.

We can all experience loneliness when we seek social connections and can’t find the opportunities to do so.

A Persistent Phenomenon

Even though we might be hearing more about this modern-day ailment from wellness consultants, media outlets, and other experts than we did a few years ago, the “loneliness epidemic” in the United States and other industrialized nations isn’t new. A review conducted in 2010 of nearly 150 peer-reviewed scientific studies revealed that social isolation had increased by 30 percent since 1990.5 And, of course, Robert D. Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community examined individual isolation through interviews, scientific studies, particularly amongst men, nearly twenty years ago.

In the developed world, many of us seeking connection are unable to find it. In a survey conducted in the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, more than 20 percent of adults in the US and the UK said that they lack companionship, felt isolated from others, or felt left out. These respondents also said that they feel that loneliness has a negative affect on their everyday lives.6

Recognizing the ill effects of loneliness, former UK Prime Minster Theresa May named a Minister of Loneliness, who has held meetings with lawmakers from Canada and Sweden to address and tackle this growing international phenomenon.7 And last year in Australia, universities, non-profits, and the Australian government created the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, aimed at raising awareness and providing resources for understanding and coping with social isolation.

Perhaps the growing perception of loneliness is on the rise because we truly are more isolated from meaningful, in-person social interaction. Or perhaps it is because we feel social pressure to connect with others and then when we are unable to do so, we feel disappointed, or, as some like to say, we experience FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. Whatever the reasons, our unfulfilled human need for social connection is becoming a public health crisis.

Loneliness Is the New Smoking

But what makes loneliness so harmful?

Loneliness coincides with serious health conditions including depression, dementia, and suicide. Loneliness has also been correlated with physical ailments, such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, eating disorders, and diabetes; it can even cause us to feel physical pain more intensely.8 Lonely people also tend to engage more in harmful habits, like smoking.9

A study in 2018 by the UK-based career search engine TotalJobs found that 68 percent of respondents who said they were chronically lonely also experienced increased stress levels.10 And of course, chronic stress can lead to a variety of health complications, including depression, a weakened immune system, and hypertension. In fact, breast cancer patients who are chronically lonely have a decreased chance of recovery compared to those with stronger friendships and social connections.11

If that weren’t enough, a groundbreaking study by psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues found that those who reported being lonely had a 26 percent increased likelihood of death. Social isolation increased the likelihood by 29 percent, and living alone increased that chance by 32 percent.12 These numbers are similar to those seen in individuals who smoke up to 15 cigarettes a day.

Creating Connection at Work

So what can workplace leaders do to address loneliness in their own organizations?

They can start with acknowledging that some or many of their employees might be feeling lonely, and that this loneliness isn’t just detrimental to their individual health, but also to the bottom line of their organization.

Just starting the conversation could be challenging, because there is a lingering social stigma around feeling lonely. This issue is particularly challenging for middle-aged men, who often don’t learn how to cultivate and keep meaningful, platonic relationships with other boys as they grow into adulthood, according to NYU psychology professor Niobe Way.13 They might feel ashamed of expressing their loneliness, or even admitting that they want friendships with other men, which they could see as a sign of weakness.

Workplace leaders can help create a culture of connection by not only organizing regular social activities, such as annual holiday parties or lunchtime outings, but also by enthusiastically encouraging—but not requiring—their people to attend.

Employees might be reluctant to socialize at work, for fear of being perceived as unproductive or distracted from their assignments. Leaders can set an good example by setting aside some social time at work for themselves, too, like having lunch with colleagues. When employees see their managers engaging in social behavior, they’ll be far more likely to do so themselves, and they’ll feel far more comfortable and included in the workplace culture.

And we must also recognize that the “weak ties” we have with other people can have a profound positive effect on our wellbeing. Casual interactions with acquaintances and even with strangers, both at work and in our daily lives, have been found to reduce loneliness and increase emotional wellbeing.14 It doesn’t take much effort to say “hello” to the barista at your local coffee shop, someone you see often on your commute, or a new hire at work. And when we engage in more “low stakes” connections, we’re far more likely to develop a closer friend or two.

Even just having one close friend at work can provide a wide range of positive effects. A Gallup poll found that those who have a best friend at work are 27 percent more likely to feel that their opinions at work count, and 43 percent more likely to report that they’ve received praise or recognition for their work in the past week.15

We also encourage a healthy dose of mindfulness practice to help cope with workplace loneliness. A regular mindfulness practice can help us recognize feelings of loneliness or isolation without attaching judgement to them. In fact, a study published this year found that accepting feelings of isolation through mindfulness interventions might encourage people to engage more with others in their daily lives.16

Small Connections Make a Big Difference

So, if a colleague or an employee is feeling isolated, we hope that you’ll reach out to them. Perhaps invite them to take a walk with you, grab a coffee, or go out to lunch with a few other co-workers.

Even just small gestures of friendly interaction can make a big difference for our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, and can help fight the growing, global loneliness epidemic.

1 “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America,” PRNewsWire, May 1, 2018,
2 Gallup, State of the American Workplace, 2017, p. 118,
3 “The Cost of Loneliness at Work: The Impact of Loneliness Upon Business Across the UK,” New Economics Foundation, February 20, 2017,
4 Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 373:1753 (2018): 20170239,
5 Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton, “Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review.” PLoS medicine, 7 (2010): e1000316,
6 B. DiJulio, L. Hamel, C. Muñana, and M. Brodie, “Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey,” The Economist & Kaiser Family Foundation (2018),
7 Tara John, “How the World’s First Loneliness Minister Will Tackle ‘the Sad Reality of Modern Life’,” Time, April 25, 2018,
8 Lisa M. Jaremka et al, “Pain, depression, and fatigue: loneliness as a longitudinal risk factor,” Health Psychology 33:9 (2014): 948,
9 Stephanie R. Dyal, and Thomas W. Valente, “A systematic review of loneliness and smoking: small effects, big implications,” Substance use & misuse 50:13 (2015): 1697-1716,
10 Emma Mamo, “How to combat the rise of workplace loneliness,” TotalJobs, July 30, 2018,
11 Lisa M. Jaremka et al, “Loneliness promotes inflammation during acute stress,” Psychological Science 24:7 (2013): 1089-1097,
12 Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al, “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.” Perspectives on psychological science 10:2 (2015): 227-237,
13 “Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men,” Hidden Brain, March 19, 2018,
14 Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn, “Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40:7 (2014): 910-922,
15 “Item 10: I Have a Best Friend at Work: The twelve key dimensions that describe great workgroups (part 11),” Gallup, May 26, 1999,
16 Emily K. Lindsay et al, “Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116:9 (2019): 3488-3493,

Cory Smith
Cory Smith // Co-Founder & CEO • Wisdom Labs

Cory has spent over 20 years aligning purpose, entrepreneurship and social good to create companies that have positive impact for people and the planet. Previously, Cory was CEO of Impact Hub Bay Area, CEO of the Social Capital Markets Conference, the first Innovation Fellow for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, CEO of Webcast Solutions (acquired by StarMedia/France Telecom) and Co-founder of MediaCast, the first on-location webcast company.