- More than 1 in 3 workers report feeling a general sense of emptiness or disconnection from others when they are at work.
- Lonely workers take double the number of sick days a year compared with non-lonely workers.
- 61% of workers get in-person interaction for less than an hour to up to 2 hours per day.
Loneliness is on the rise with 61 percent of Americans reporting they feel lonely, according to Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index.
The findings show a 7 percent increase compared to data from 2018.
And loneliness extends into the workplace, too.
More than 1 in 3 workers report feeling a general sense of emptiness or disconnection from others when they are at work, while 39% feel the need to hide their true self when they go to work.
“Loneliness is a normal feeling that all of us feel at one point or another in our lives. Loneliness is that negative feeling we get when our desire to be connected or be with others is not matched with the reality of those around us and the connections that we have,” Dr. Doug Nemecek, MBA, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, told Healthline.
Nemecek and his colleagues wanted to understand how the modern workplace is affecting workers’ sense of connections and loneliness, and how feeling lonely influenced their ability to work.
“One of the things we really wanted to do is highlight the fact that loneliness is at significantly high levels across all adults and those of us going to work. We spend the vast majority of our waking hours at work, and over the course of a lifetime we’ll spend 90,000 hours on average at work,” he said.
“We have an opportunity through the workplace to help individuals make connections and be more connected, and that will help us as individuals be more healthy, and the business be more healthy, as well.”
Cigna’s key findings include the following:
Lonely workers take double the number of sick days a year and miss five times more days of work due to stress compared with non-lonely workers.
“From an engagement and productivity standpoint, we see that workers who feel disconnected and lonely are going to be less engaged and productive as those who are not feeling as lonely, and that can have a significant impact on a business,” said Nemecek.
While his research doesn’t explain the cause for this, he said loneliness research shows that feeling lonely can affect the way we feel about our own physical health.
“And [we know loneliness] is connected to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and substance use. From those connections, we can see that it can impact an individual’s need to take time off work or miss work due to illness or stress,” said Nemecek.
Employees in entry-level positions and senior executive positions are lonelier than middle-management employees.
Erin Peavey, licensed architect and design researcher at HKS, studies how the design of environments can influence health and well-being. She said research shows that people in executive level positions feel they can’t be themselves at work while those in entry level roles feel insecure.
“When a senior, you are alone and everyone is looking up to you, and there’s less talking with other people to see what they know. It’s great we’re getting away from that and saying psychological safety matters and executives can figure things out together,” Peavey told Healthline.
“We can’t creative problem solve when we’re not able to feel safe or collaborate.”
1 in 10 employed Americans say they never interact with people through in-person conversations or meetings at work, and 61% get in-person interaction for less than an hour to up to 2 hours per day.
Peavey said creating space within offices that encourages casual interactions is key to decreasing this stat.
“What brings people [into a space] continuously throughout the day regardless of the time? Many times, that’s related to coffee or eating, but you want a space that will be in the mix of everything, not coffee sitting in the back room,” she said.
Breakout rooms and open offices are another way to initiate interaction, she said.
“I understand why people are down on open spaces, but open spaces are not just for collaborating. They are for nature and daylight, which are scientifically indicated through repeated studies to be very effective at helping to benefit our well-being,” said Peavey.
Having whiteboards and chalkboards in shared spaces can also encourage collaboration.
“It helps people feel connected if they are creating [something] together. It’s not just having a whiteboard, it’s using it… so you can co-create together,” Peavey said.
Personalizing your workspace with pictures of family or inspiration artwork is another way to initiate connections, she added.
“Even if everyone doesn’t work [at their desk or in the office] every day, there is still a sense of identity that shows up from decorating your space with plants or pictures of things that bring you joy. Some of the research [shows that] how people decorate their desk… helps [them] to feel more like they are sharing themselves,” said Peavey.
The number of hours worked doesn’t have an impact on loneliness or a driving factor of a person’s level of feeling alone, isolated, or misunderstood.
Many of Cigna’s findings highlighted the need for people to have a sense of balance in their life.
“People who felt that they worked the right amount of hours were less lonely than those who said they worked too much and those who said they don’t work enough,” said Nemecek.
“We saw similar issues with balance with exercise and [eating] healthy, so finding that right balance is truly important.”
He added, “Feeling like we have the right amount of engagement and connections ties back to number of hours we work not being the most important number, but our feeling and sense that we are working the right and correct number of hours.”
Nemecek believes that despite the type of business, employers and employees need to be deliberate and purposeful in creating opportunities for workers to make connections.
“For example, many employers have affinity groups for employees who have similar demographics or interests so they can get together… or [they offer] opportunity outside of work to volunteer to help a charity in their community like building a house for Habitat for Humanity or [participating in a] walk for a charity group,” said Nemecek.
“These are great opportunities… for employees to share an interest and develop meaningful connections with co-workers that can help all of [them] be less lonely.”
However, Nemecek points out that loneliness is different than being alone, and that sometimes to be productive, healthy workers, we need alone time.
“All of us benefit from being alone. It’s helpful to get away and read a book or listen to music, and get the chance to decompress and relax and get away from all the stresses we deal with at work and home and elsewhere,” he said.
“You can be lonely when you’re in a room full of people at work or even at home with family. It’s finding that right balance.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.