Is loneliness the next employee wellness frontier?

While the subject of loneliness isn’t one that immediately comes to mind when considering workplace wellness, a 2017 study by Britain’s New Economics Foundation showed its economic impact is about £2.5 billion annually.

Using evidence on the links between loneliness and depression, coronary heart disease and stroke, the study estimated its cost to employers includes the effect on employees’ health and those they care for, as well as the impact on employee well-being, the related loss of productivity and rise in staff turnover.

Read: 49% of Canadians suffer from mental illness at some point: survey

It’s in a company’s best interest to take both a reactive and preventative approach to minimizing employee loneliness, noted the study. “A key first step will be raising awareness of the issue among employers, so that they understand the business case for addressing loneliness among their employees.”

All the lonely people

Loneliness affects everything about our health, yet we tend to discount it, says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and behavioural science columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “I feel like insurers could really have a big impact on changing the perspective of how businesses view this, and the importance of social contact on workers’ mental and physical health.”

Face-to-face social interaction is probably the biggest factor for preventing chronic disease, says Pinker, noting that people with active social lives recover more quickly after an illness so they’re less likely to miss work. “Women, for example, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer: those who have large, in-person social networks — and many of these are work-related — are four-times more likely to survive their illness.”

While the science is complex, in-person social contact switches genes on and off that regulate immunity and tumour growth, says Pinker, noting it also releases neurotransmitters that affect how well a person thinks and remembers.

Read: A primer on supporting employees with mental illnesses

72% of Americans reported they’ve felt a sense of loneliness and 31% said they felt it at least once a week, according to a 2016 survey by the American Osteopathic Association.

9 million British adults are often or always lonely, according to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, published in January 2018.

“Something as simple as a weekly coffee meeting at Tim Hortons can give you a two- to 15-year survival advantage. This is, in particular, very important for men who are less likely to seek out in-person social networks just for their own pleasure.”

Role of employers

Loneliness isn’t yet a fully formed area in employee health and well-being, but employers are starting to ask what they can do — or stop doing — to help, says Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd.

“It’s a major health issue and people are saying it’s actually a bigger health issue than some of our more traditional ones, like cardiovascular risk, at this point in time. Because of that, it’s just starting to get attention in the workplace,” she says.

From Pinker’s perspective, however, employers aren’t aware of the issue, though she acknowledges it’s gaining attention in some industries. In many cases, she says, employers are actually exacerbating the problem. “In other words, they’re cutting costs, so they’re allowing workers to work from remote offices. It can be suitable for a few introverts, but for most people it’s quite destructive not to have a place to meet with colleagues. It’s destructive to their mental health and it’s destructive to their productivity.”

Read: Workplace stress a leading cause of mental-health issues: survey

In the case of staffing firm Robert Half International, which offers remote working opportunities to its staff, the key to combating loneliness is in keeping employees engaged, says Michelle Dunnill, a Toronto-based branch manager at the company.

As well, it’s important for leadership to keep a schedule of the remote worker’s on-site availability, where and how they can be reached and ensure the work is flowing smoothly, she adds. “So maybe setting up that Skype meeting within the team and using collaborative software tools . . . so you can help that remote staff stay in touch so they’re not feeling lonely and disconnected.”

Ryan Murphy is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.