Study Sees Rise in Lonely Americans, and the Workplace Might Play a Part

Study Sees Rise in Lonely Americans, and the Workplace Might Play a Part

More than three in five Americans are lonely, according to a recent report—and co-worker relationships have a significant impact.

More than 60 percent of Americans report feeling lonely, left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship, according to a recent report by Cigna Insurance. Male and younger workers bear the heaviest burden—and workplace culture may be a large contributing factor.

Cigna’s report released on Jan. 23, 2020 showed that since its initial 2018 survey on loneliness, there has been a 13 percent rise in loneliness—and the potential reasons for this are many.

The report that indicated the increase surveyed over 10,000 adult workers in July and August 2019. It measured loneliness using the UCLA Loneliness Scale—a standard within psychology research. Respondents were asked to rate their reactions to statements such as “How often do you feel outgoing and friendly?” and “How often do you feel alone?”—which were used to calculate a loneliness score on an 80-point scale.

Loneliness is not just a feeling of sadness—it’s been proven to have “widespread effects” on a person’s mental health and physical health, too. Loneliness is strongly linked to issues like anxiety and depression, said Bert Uchino, a professor at the University of Utah who studies relationships and health.  

Studies in recent years have even documented loneliness’ public health effects, too. It has been linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It has been shown to influence our genes and our immune systems, and even recovery from breast cancer.

In fact, relationships in general really impact mental and physical health, Uchino said. More and more research suggests that “the kinds of bonds you have with people, how close you are, how connected you feel to others” all have significant impacts on a person’s wellbeing, according to an NPR article on the topic.

The May 2018 survey asked thousands of Americans over the age of 18 about their feelings of loneliness. Here are some of the results it found:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
  • 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).
  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2)—even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
  • Only around 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).

The survey also considered other factors that are known to impact a person’s physical and mental health like sleep, time with family, physical activity, and long work hours.

The January 2020 Report expanded on these findings and took a deeper dive into contributing factors. For one thing, it found that workplace culture plays a significant role in a person’s loneliness score.

The 2020 follow up report found that loneliness appeared more common among men (63 percent) than women (58 percent).

Social media played a role in making people feel isolated, too, with 73 percent of heavy social media users feeling lonely compared with 52 percent of light users.

A person’s age did play a part, but loneliness showed no mercy to any generation. For example, Gen Z individuals (between the ages of 18 to 22 years old) still appeared the loneliest with an average loneliness score of 50 on the 80-point scale. Boomer individuals had the lowest average score at about 43 percent. However, people of all ages were reported feeling lonely.

“We need to recognize that no one is immune [to loneliness],” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University.

What about workplace culture, though? New research pays closer attention to the factors behind these feelings of isolation than the previous report, and it found that the workplace impacted how lonely people felt.

For example, it showed that people with good co-worker relationships—or even those with close friends at work—were 10 points less lonely on the 80-point scale, and those with a good work-life balance were less lonely, too. Why? When colleagues share goals and out-of-work interests, average loneliness scores dropped nearly eight points.

Younger employees who were new to a job appeared lonelier than others, too, the report found. Those within the first six months of their jobs had loneliness scores more than six points higher than those who had held their position for over a decade.

This goes back to the psychological and social understanding of how relationships impact a person’s health. As chief medical officer at Cigna Doug Nemececk said, “In-person connections are what really matters. Sharing that time to have a meaningful interaction and a meaningful conversation…is important to help us mitigate and minimize loneliness.”

What Now?
You might be wondering: while all of this makes logical sense, what can employers really do to help employees feel less lonely? The answer is: researchers are still unsure.

Employers do have a reason to address loneliness: lonely workers are more likely to miss work due to illness, stress, or mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Researchers are still trying to find effective methods to ease loneliness.

However, this recent data could spark ideas for interventions, said Holt-Lonstad. Plus, if employers prioritize mental health, ensure sufficient insurance, and encourage open communication about mental health, individuals are less likely to feel alone. Employers should also encourage healthy work-life balances for employees, as this has a proven impact on a person’s wellbeing.

But this is also a problem for health providers, said the Institute of Medicine (now the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) in a 2014 report. Social connection—or lack thereof—is now considered a social determinant of health.

The report suggested that health providers should collect information about patients’ “social connections and social isolation” along with information on “education, employment, lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking, etc.) and psychological health.”

Cigna Insurance is launching a number of efforts to help address the loneliness epidemic and improve Americans’ overall mental wellness. To learn about Cigna’s programs, go here.

Loneliness among Americans is not just a problem on an individual level. It affects employers, health providers, and health organizations, too. No one should be in this fight alone.

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