Improving Employee Health by Combatting Loneliness in the Workplace

How to prioritize workplace social connections for employee health, productivity, and retention

A silhouette of a man sitting a a desk with a black background.

Loneliness is an epidemic. In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, issued an advisory to call attention to loneliness as a significant public health challenge that required action. In issuing the advisory, the Surgeon General noted that the lack of social connections has widespread consequences for society and calls on many stakeholders, including employers, to “strengthen social connection through a whole-of-society approach.” 

Dr. Murthy — who himself felt lonely during his first tenure as Surgeon General and subsequently wrote a book on the topic — published the advisory during the first week of National Mental Health Awareness Month. In his opening letter of the advisory, Dr. Murthy notes that given the effects of loneliness on society, "we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.”

Of particular interest to employers, the advisory makes note of the significant economic cost of loneliness to society and its association with lower academic achievement and worse performance at work. It points out that “in the U.S., stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually.” The advisory also provides employers with insights into the benefits of workplace connectedness, including improvements in quality of work, creativity, and employee satisfaction.

Jeremy Nobel, MD MPH, teaches a course on “Loneliness and Public Health” at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and leads a session on how employers can best respond to loneliness as part of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) executive education program, “Evidence, Insight, and Strategy for Optimizing Health Benefits.” Dr. Nobel points out, "Loneliness is perhaps the biggest preventable risk factor for depression, addiction, and suicide, adding immeasurable human suffering to the economic burden of additional medical costs, missed work time, and reduced productivity. When employers reduce disconnection and loneliness in the workplace, everyone wins.”

Here is a brief look at the recommendations provided by the Surgeon General on how employers and leaders can combat loneliness in the workplace:

  1. Make social connection a strategic priority for all.
  2. Train, resource, and empower leaders to promote connection in the workplace.
  3. Leverage existing training and resources to educate everyone about the value of social connection.
  4. Create practices and a workplace culture to promote connections, inclusion, and belonging.
  5. Implement policies that protect workers’ ability to nurture relationships outside of work.
  6. Consider opportunities and challenges associated with flexible work hours and remote and hybrid work.

Jeffrey Levin-Scherz, MD, MBA, co-director of the  “Evidence, Insight and Strategy for Optimizing Health Benefits” program, reviewed Dr. Murthy’s advisory and shared a few important observations on his blog, Employer Coverage.

“Americans are clearly lonelier than they were in the past,” writes Dr. Levin-Scherz. “We spent 12 hours more by ourselves each month in 2019 compared to 2003, up from 143 hours to 155 hours. This got worse still in 2020, but that could be blamed on the pandemic.”

Dr. Levin-Scherz notes that nearly half of Americans — 49% — reported having three or fewer close friends in 2021, an increase from 27% in 1990. In 2018, just 16% reported feeling “very attached” to their local community. Marriage rates and family sizes are down. And social isolation is more common in people who are already marginalized — those with chronic illness, mental illness, and lower incomes.

“Employees spend more of their waking hours at work than just about anywhere else,” said Dr. Levin-Scherz. “Creating community and opportunities for social interactions at work, even for those who work remotely, can help address our current epidemic of loneliness.”

In addition to the valuable insights from the Surgeon General, Jacqueline Olds, MD, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at HMS and Consultant in Psychiatry at MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program, offers a compelling perspective on the importance of nurturing social activities within the workplace. Dr. Olds strongly advocates appointing a social chair with a dedicated budget, a proactive approach to enhance employee engagement. She also encourages leaders to challenge the traditional discouragement of workplace relationships, emphasizing the need for bosses to "support and encourage friendships among employees." Dr. Olds underlines the positive impact of these connections, which can significantly enhance job satisfaction and overall performance.

Recognizing loneliness as a preventable risk factor is of utmost importance, and promoting open discussions empowers individuals to seek the support they need. Dr. Olds recommends that executives share personal stories from their early careers to help employees relate to the importance of fostering connections. She notes, “Using a personal anecdote from their early career is an effective way for an executive to address the feelings some employees may be experiencing.” 

Addressing workplace loneliness is crucial for both employee well-being and productivity. When leaders actively cultivate inclusive cultures, encourage workplace friendships, facilitate open conversations, and share personal anecdotes, they contribute to a more connected and supportive work environment, benefiting both individuals and organizations.

Dr. Levin-Scherz co-directs an HMS Executive Education program for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) about optimizing employee health benefits. Jeremy Nobel, MD MPH, one of the faculty of this program, is affiliated with the HMS Center for Primary Care.

Additionally, HMS offers a wide range of evidence-based health information and capabilities, from digital health content and learning options to custom programs for organizations, all of which enable teams to perform at their best. 

Learn more about HMS Corporate Learning.