Vivek Murthy doesn’t mince words when it comes to the issue of loneliness.
“The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness,” Murthy, the former surgeon general wrote recently in Harvard Business Review. “If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and in society.”
Murthy believes that loneliness isn’t just a brief feeling of sadness that happens when you’re by yourself. It’s become a widespread illness that deserves treatment in the way physicians might tackle depression or chronic stress. And his proposed solution of having CEOs create tight-knit offices points to one of the lesser-known downsides of loneliness: It hurts job performance.
Murthy highlighted research that found people with stronger social connections at work tended to show greater productivity, higher-quality work, and improved health.
“Without strong social connections, these gains become losses,” Murthy wrote.
In other words, being physically close your colleagues doesn’t guarantee you’ll feed off their brainpower or work ethic. There must still be some aspect of social connection — be it joking around or thoughtful conversation — for health and productivity to improve.
“A more connected workforce is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout,” Murthy wrote.
Murthy isn’t the first one to approach loneliness as an “epidemic.” Even 20 years ago, psychologists began noticing the trend of humans receding into their homes, with waning interest in connecting with neighbours. Only recently have public health experts begun quantifying the risks posed by loneliness.
In August, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, presented the findings from two huge meta-analyses at this year’s Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Holt-Lunstad’s research shows loneliness could pose a greater threat to public health than obesity. In his HBR piece, Murthy noted that loneliness reduces people’s life spans by the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness is its own breed of illness in that regard; it harms people in both the long term and short term. According to Murthy, the federal government has a role to play in helping people feel more connected in their communities, partly by sussing out the true scope of the problem. But he said businesses can play a unique role, too.
“Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients,” he said, “but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organisations to address loneliness.”