Loneliness: The Epidemic You Can Do Something About

Loneliness in America’s workers is on the rise and you may be surprised to learn that this epidemic began long before the current Covid-19 crisis. But how, in a world seemingly more connected than ever before, can we begin to unravel the cause for the disconnect, feelings of isolation, and impact on mental, emotional, and physical well-being that loneliness has on the average American.

Over the last few years, many prominent universities and research institutions have invested significant effort into discovering the factors contributing to this phenomenon and how to address it in the workplace. One such study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review {America’s Loneliest Workers, According to the Research} caught the attention of expert Olivia Ash, Esq., MS creating a passion and a commitment to research, educate and better understand the impact of loneliness on the legal and other professions, as well as come to understand how to implement effective solutions.


Olivia Ash, Esq, MS, joins JA Benefits this Friday for an important conversation focused on helping HR Professionals and Business Leaders become Advocates for Emotional Well-Being where she will help employers and business leaders Recognize Loneliness and Implement Solutions in the workplace.

Olivia Ash, Esq., MS, brings fifteen years of teaching & management experience to well-being education. After receiving her BS in Exercise Science and MS in Physical Education, Olivia spent a decade advising employers on wellness program management. As an Indiana-licensed attorney, Olivia serves as Associate General Counsel for The Capstone Group, specializing in ERISA compliance for benefit plans. In addition, Olivia is an award-winning writer, researching the experience of loneliness. As an experienced educator, holding an Indiana state teaching license, Olivia serves as Adjunct Faculty at the Indiana University School of Health and Human Sciences.


2020 has been a challenging year for almost everyone and almost every industry. To compound the already researched factors contributing to loneliness, we now have the added forced growth of remote workplaces and quarantines, which contributed to added emotional, physical, mental, and financial stressors. As HR Professionals and Business Leaders, there is the new and extremely heavy burden of shouldering the responsibility of keeping employees safe and healthy, while keeping businesses productive and profitable, often in the face of not feeling equipped with the knowledge or information to be able to do so effectively.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Loneliness should be as important to managers, CFOs, and CEOs as it is to therapists. The last half-decade of research has demonstrated that loneliness threatens not only our physical health and well-being but also our livelihood. Research shows that loneliness has the same effect as 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health care outcomes and health care costs. Yet, we are often blind to this hidden drain on health and revenue. Lonelier workers perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs — costing employers upwards of $3.5 billion in the United States.” Interestingly, the outcome of this study illuminated consistent results regardless of industry and across a broad range of demographics revealing, “Lonelier workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Feeling a lack of workplace social support was associated with similar negative business outcomes. The economic impact of loneliness is indeed staggering.”


Based on these and other studies, we have come to understand that loneliness is crippling workplace productivity. It impacts every level of your organization, including you. A study of over 20,000 workers by Cigna additionally revealed a worrisome trend that loneliness is contagious. Cigna’s research showed, “Lonely workers take twice as many sick days and demonstrate less commitment and weaker performance. Their emotions can spread to others, as well, causing a ripple effect throughout an organization.” The results of these studies present a clear and loud call to action for our nation’s HR Professionals and Business Leaders.

On November 13th at 9 am, JA Benefits will hold an educational engagement at no charge for HR Professionals and Business Leaders who desire to understand the role they play in implementing workplace solutions for loneliness

JA recognizes the tremendous weight the current workplace climate could put on even the best Business Leaders and HR Professionals who may not have the insight to recognize the signs of loneliness for the maintaining of their own well-being, much less the well-being of those in their charge. This creates the unnecessary risk of loneliness permeating our organizations and our employee populations. For this reason, JA Benefits is taking steps to lead this conversation by hosting the expert insight of Olivia Ash of Liv Balanced, LLC aiming to provide actionable insight on the loneliness phenomenon for HR Professionals and Business Leaders.

What do the statistics say about how loneliness impacts your health, work, and outlook?

According to the outcome of two Cigna studies, one from 2018 and one from 2020, {Cigna US Loneliness Index – Survey of 20,000 Americans Examining Behaviors Driving Loneliness in the United StatesLoneliness and the Workplace – 2020 US Report}, loneliness impacts every area of our daily life touching on all six areas of well-being (emotional, intellectual, occupational, physical, spiritual and social). Drilling down into these survey results, the statistics are staggering and should drive us all to seek a better understanding to recognize the signs and implement solutions.  


Your Health:

Studies show there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of mortality among individuals who feel lonely, with an even great (45%) increased risk in seniors. (HRSA, US, 2019).

Your Occupation:

The Cigna studies revealed 32% of men and 23% of women feel abandoned by coworkers when under pressure, while 35% feel a general sense of emptiness at work and 39% feel like they have to hide their true self at work. Lonely workers say they are less engaged, less productive, and report the desire to change jobs more often and leave current employers seeking a better work environment. The statistics for remote workers are even more staggering with over 54% (versus 45% of in-office workers) feel that their relationships with others are not meaningful with 57% of remote workers saying they always or sometimes feel lonely (versus 52% of in-office workers feeling this way).

Your Income:

According to a YouGov survey conducted in 2019, income is a contributing factor to loneliness, but the statistics reveal that loneliness doesn’t seem to vastly discriminate based on income with 58% of people earning less than $40k/year always feeling lonely vs 52% in the $40-$80k/year, and 47% of people earning over $80k/year feeling lonely.

Your Race:

Studies have consistently shown that loneliness permeates every economic and social demographic, and continues to show this non-discrimination when factoring in race with 52% of whites feeling lonely, 47% of blacks, and a staggering 64% of Hispanics reporting feeling lonely.


What about Loneliness and Social Media?

 Designed to keep us connected near and far, the advent of social media brought long lost friends and far-away family back into our lives. However, over this past year, more and more experts are sounding the alarm on the negative impact social media is having on our societal need to connect (MIRL) with other human beings versus simply a virtual connection. In other words, clicking ‘like’ or ‘retweeting’ a post from a friend while scrolling through endless memes or TikTok videos for a laugh, is not the same as meeting in person over a cup of coffee for real conversation, encouragement, and connection. Unfortunately, trends show we are doing more of the ‘clicking’ and less of the ‘connecting’. We are quickly becoming a world of very lazy, disconnected, lonely communicators, which is resulting in a significant and negative impact on our well-being. According to the same Cigna study from 2020, they found that 73% of heavy social media users feel lonely versus 52% of light social media users. In addition, a UK study from 2018 found that when social media is used to escape social interaction, it increases loneliness.  

Combatting Loneliness in the Workplace

“Given the pernicious effects of loneliness… and given the amount of time people spend at work, leaders must address the issue,” Sigal Barsade, a professor at The Wharton School, told the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). “This is not only, of course, because it’s an alienating and upsetting experience for the employee, but also because it’s an organizational problem.”


Organizations across the country began to invest heavily in workplace culture throughout 2019 and 2020, quickly recognizing that the investment paid off in droves when it came to productivity and retention. Establishing a culture that makes everyone feel welcomed and integrated is action item number one, but any HR professional or business leader can tell you that goal is far from simple to implement and sustain. Creating cultural buy-in across small and large organizations, encouraging participation in meaningful workplace interactions, and addressing factors such as personality differences, demographic differences and life composition differences in your employee population are extremely challenging. Add Coronavirus into the mix and you have yourself a formidable challenge. 


Investing time in educating yourself on the loneliness epidemic, understanding contributing factors to loneliness, and learning to recognize the signs of loneliness in your workplace will all help you to better implement solutions. Experts also recommend Business Leaders and HR Professionals take three decisive actions immediately to stem the spread of loneliness in the workplace.

Connect – For Real. In Person.

Technology is our friend. It makes life easier (most of the time). However, it seems the more we adopt new technology to lessen our load and streamline our processes, the more we lessen face-to-face interactions. Given that Cigna highlighted that the “frequency of one’s in-person interactions is a key indicator of how lonely they are” tells us that continued ‘automation’ and ‘streamlining’ could create a bit of a ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ type scenario in the workplace. A {Future Workplace Study} surveying over 2,000 managers and employees across 10 countries revealed that more than half of an employee’s day is spent using technology to communicate, resulting in a feeling of disconnect and loneliness.


Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, said: “Technology has created the illusion that workers are connected when in reality they feel isolated, lonely, disengaged and less committed to their organizations when overusing or misusing it… Today’s leaders need to use technology as a bridge to connection so that they can foster strong work cultures, where employee’s human needs are met and supported.”


Schawbel went on to share that the best way to combat the negative impacts of the increasing use of technology contributing to feelings of loneliness is through “team building activities, social events and workations where workers can get to know each other on a personal level.” “Having those [personal] connections is one of the strongest predictors of employee satisfaction, retention, performance, and success,” said Rajiv Kumar, a medical doctor and president of Virgin Pulse Institute. “This study underscores the need for us to help our employees by fostering human interaction, communication, and strong relationships that extend past the workplace.”


Culture – Build it. Stick to it.

Corporate culture plays an integral role in employee loneliness. Harvard Business Review described a study that found a culture of “companionate love,” including expressions of affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness among employees, “weakens the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and affective commitment to the organization.” A culture of anger, on the other hand, strengthens it. This may seem like common sense, but many business leaders do not invest the time or resources necessary to define and construct a meaningful workplace culture, which could lead unwittingly to erosion of productivity and increasing feelings of loneliness in their employee population. Leaders should, therefore, encourage a culture of companionship — which, in turn, will help to foster cooperation over competition.

Take Action – Be Intentional.

Loneliness is on the rise, and, unfortunately, the trends of technology, increase in remote workplaces and even the current Coronavirus pandemic contribute to and will continue to contribute to an increase in loneliness unless HR professionals and business leaders take intentional actions with mitigation in mind. Simply recognizing that loneliness exists and can be caused by workplace practices is a good first step, but not enough. Besides millennials and Gen Zers, who may be more reticent to initiate the face-to-face interactions they desperately need, two populations that deserve additional leadership attention are remote workers and new hires. According to Cigna, both of these groups are more likely to feel alone and lack companionship.

New Hires: To reduce loneliness for new hires, leaders should introduce interventions as early as the onboarding process. Christina Zurek, a researcher at ITA Group, suggested “team lunches, snacks near the new person’s desk, or assigning a ‘work buddy’ to show the ropes.” “These early opportunities for social engagement,” she wrote, “help new hires make connections sooner.”

Remote Workers: To reduce loneliness among remote workers, Schawbel suggested letting them lead virtual meetings, utilizing video conferencing software, and having them work on-site regularly. (A Gallup poll found that remote employees who work at the office once per week are the happiest.)

Workplace Design: Contrary to popular belief and workplace design trends, open offices are not the answer. One study found employees spent four fewer hours per day interacting with their colleagues when they transitioned to open offices, as they replaced that vital face time with 56% more emails and 67% more instant messages. “[O]pen office plans don’t actually increase collaboration or decrease loneliness,” Susan Cain, author of Quiet, told SHRM. “On the contrary, they create giant rooms full of worker bees wearing headphones.” 

So, while the world is changing around us and the future of work will inevitably continue to drive innovation and change, what humans naturally need has not changed. We need other humans. Most company leaders understand that for the company to truly be successful, then the people within the company need to be successful as well. This means the epidemic of loneliness infiltrating our HR professionals, business leaders and employees is well worth addressing while working together to develop solutions and sharing ideas on what is working.

Productivity and profit aside, contributing to the reduction of loneliness in the workplace, contributes to the well-being of us all.


Join us this Friday, November 13th, at 9 am for our complimentary special event, Advocate for Emotional Well-Being: Recognizing Loneliness and Implementing Solutions, featuring expert Olivia Ash, Esq. MS, of Liv Balanced LLC.