Mark Craemer No Comments

Loneliness is on the rise in America. This is a huge health concern and has ramifications in the workplace. The solution is complex yet maybe we can learn something from magpies.

First some facts regarding the impending epidemic. A recent Cigna survey of 20,000 U.S. adults 18 years or older found that:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
  • Only about half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

Turns out loneliness can be as big a health risk as obesity. The American Psychological Association released a study concluding lonely people are at a greater risk for premature death. And according to John Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, studies suggest that one lonely day can exact roughly the same toll on the body as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes!

Many of us are not sleeping enough, and sleep deprivation can increase loneliness because it takes a lot of energy to engage with others. Despite the fact that the “open office” environment was designed to bring about more interaction, this has yet to be proven effective.

Using Slack, social media and your company’s intranet are no substitute for face-to-face water cooler—err, espresso bar—conversations. Interacting with co-workers in real time and in person enables connection unlike any other method.

Now about those magpies: Research by Ben Ashton from the University of Western Australia found that cooperatively breeding Australian magpies living in large groups showed increased cognitive performance. Repeated cognitive testing of juveniles at different ages showed that the correlation between group size and cognition emerged in early life, suggesting that living in larger groups promotes cognitive development.

“Our results suggest that the social environment plays a key role in the development of cognition,” says Ashton, though the findings are considered contentious.

Nevertheless, if magpies can benefit cognitively from social interaction, shouldn’t humans—considered the most social animals—find ways to interact face-to-face more often?

Bright spots in the Cigna survey found:

  • People who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.
  • Getting the right balance of sleep, work, socializing with friends, family and “me time” is connected to lower loneliness scores. However, balance is critical, as those who get too little or too much of these activities have higher loneliness scores.

“There is an inherent link between loneliness and the workplace, with employers in a unique position to be a critical part of the solution,” said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna. “Fortunately, these results clearly point to the benefits meaningful in-person connections can have on loneliness, including those in the workplace and the one that takes place in your doctor’s office as a part of the annual checkup.”

We shouldn’t look to our workplace to keep us from being lonely, of course, but we could all benefit by choosing to meet with our colleagues and discuss things face-to-face more often. To enable time for this will require getting out of those many meetings we currently attend. But that’s a topic for another post.

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