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Loneliness in the Workplace

Published Wednesday Jun 17, 2020

Author Matthew J. Mowry

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., Americans were lonely and a recent survey found they were getting lonelier. With the coronavirus forcing more Americans to work from home, self-isolate, practice social distancing or lose their jobs, the feeling of isolation is only being compounded.

And while employers have more immediate concerns with which to contend, loneliness among their workers will be one they will eventually have to confront as it affects the bottom line.

In January, Cigna released its Loneliness Index, a follow up to its 2018 survey about loneliness in the U.S. The index found three in five Americans consider themselves lonely, which is up 7 percentage points from the 2018 report.

“It is a prevalent phenomenon,” says Dr. Stuart Lustig, national medical executive for behavioral health at CIGNA.

Why should employers care that their employees are lonely? The 2020 report points out the average American employee spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime, and lonely workers report being less engaged, less productive and less likely to stay at a job.

Among the report’s other findings:

• Lonely employees are twice as likely to miss work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work because of stress.

• 12% of lonely workers say they believe their work is lower quality than it should be.

• Lonely workers think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers.

• Remote workers are more likely to feel alone.

By business type, gig economy workers are the loneliest, though they comprise just 3% of American employees, next are business owners and those at publicly-traded businesses, followed by people at family-owned or privately-owned businesses, then government and nonprofit.

Those at the bottom and top of the career ladder are most prone to being lonely. Entry-level and senior executives are the two most likely groups to report always or sometimes feeling there is no one they can turn to (51% and 57%, respectively), not feeling close to anyone (53% and 56%) and that no one really knows them well (65% and 70%), according to the Cigna report.

The report also finds men are slightly more likely to be lonely: younger people (18 to 22) are lonelier than those 72+; and people living in rural areas are more lonely than those in urban or suburban areas.

The Loneliest Generation
One of the positive aspects of NH’s older population is that boomers are the least lonely generation. Per the study, boomers are most likely to feel there are people they can talk to, turn to, and who really understand them. Conversely, the newest entrants into the workforce, Gen Z, are the loneliest with more than seven in 10 (73%) Gen Z respondents reporting that they sometimes or always feel alone, shy (72%) or that no one really understands them well (71%).

Gen Zers are more than twice as likely as baby boomers to cite feeling abandoned by coworkers when under pressure at work and that they often feel alienated at work. Fully 54% of  Gen Zers reported feeling emotionally distant from co-workers and feeling disconnected from others at work, according to the Cigna report.

That seems to be in line with findings of a 2017 survey conducted for Stay Work Play NH about why young people choose to stay in or leave NH. One of the most buzzed-about findings of that survey was that 21%—or one out of five 20-to-40-year olds in NH—reported being friendless, and 25% were isolated from their families.

“It struck a lot of people as kind of sad,” says Will Stewart, executive director of Stay Work Play NH. He says a top reason given by young professionals leaving NH was few opportunities to meet new people. Meanwhile those who stay in NH cited a sense of community.

Stewart worries if younger workers don’t have friends to do after-work activities, they are lured away to a job in another state that pays more or moves them closer to family and friends. “That should be concerning for us all,” Stewart says. “We need to be focused on this as an organization and as a state.”

Stay Work Play NH unveiled a strategic plan last year that prioritizes helping young people connect to each other, their communities and to the state.

Stewart says his organization works with young professionals (YP) groups statewide to support their efforts to hold networking events. “We’ve talked with our partners in the business community about the need to connect their employees as well,” he says.

In recent months, Stay Work Play hosted a Policies & Pints series statewide to uncover what YPs like and dislike most about where they live. One common complaint is that it’s difficult to meet people. Stewart notes that concern applied to not just those in rural areas but also to those in the Seacoast, which has a large concentration of young professionals and college students. “That surprised a lot of people. If you can’t meet people in the Seacoast, where can you?” he says.

A list of reasons why young people stay or leave the region, created during a Stay Work Play Policies & Pints event. Courtesy photo.

In response, Stay Work Play is developing an online “Insider’s Guide” series to show young people the amenities each region has to offer and what there is to do. The Greater Manchester and Concord regions are completed and the Lakes Region should roll out this month. Eventually, there will be one for every region of the state, Stewart says, noting Stay Work Play’s digital guides and website are meant to be a resource for businesses who are recruiting.

Onboarding is Essential
Speaking of new recruits, the Cigna Loneliness Index shows 60% of employees who have been with a company for less than six months report feeling they’re not close to anyone, and 65% feel isolated from others.

“When you’re brand new in a job is when you’re the loneliest [at work]. It’s the same thing in a university environment. You just left your friends, and you are in a sea of thousands of people at UNH. Who are your people? It’s one reason student groups are so important,” Lustig says.

It’s also why it’s important for companies to find ways to integrate new employees quickly and help them make connections.

To increase retention, companies need to step up onboarding beyond handing out the employee handbook.

Tracie Sponenberg, chief people officer at the Granite Group in Concord that was named a 2019 NH’s Best Company to Work For, says there are online HR tools that allow companies to set up bios and organizational charts so new recruits can get to know their new coworkers, virtually explore their new workspace and find maps to nearby restaurants.

Sponenberg recommends having team members interview job candidates and partnering new hires immediately with a work buddy. “We’ve moved orientation from processes, paperwork, and benefits to connecting people so they have bonds early on all across the company,” Sponenberg says. “We try to partner people on the younger side with those more experienced.

They show them the ropes and help them navigate through those things they don’t cover in the handbook.”

Lustig says he has spoken to many people who are still close to the people who joined a company at the same time and went through onboarding together. “It’s a rite of passage,” he says. “You’re in it together. You have that in common.”

Please note: Dr. Stuart Lustig will be the keynote speaker at the Breakfast With the Best event on September 30 in Manchester. Details are available here.

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