America’s loneliness epidemic: A hidden systemic risk to organizations

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Michael Lee Stallard. I am grateful to him for making it available after first posting it at the SmartBrief website.

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Much has been written about America’s loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. The word “loneliness” in the work context is a misnomer. It doesn’t capture the whole story.

What about all of the individuals who might not think of themselves as lonely and yet the demands of work and task-oriented activities such as time in front of screens have crowded out time for anything more than superficial relationships? Many people lack sufficient, positive human connection (or social connection) and may be unaware of the ramifications. Left unchecked, the deficiency of connection today presents widespread risks not just to individuals but to organizations.

From a biological standpoint, social connection is a primal human need. Its presence appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. In contrast, studies have shown that “disconnection” is unhealthy for individuals:

Given these findings, it follows that researchers found greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role and relational performance. One might assume that the higher up the organization you go, the more connected you feel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Research reported in Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely and 61% of those CEOs believed it hindered their performance.

Prevalence of social disconnection

A considerable amount of evidence suggests that social disconnection is prevalent today. Based on its research findings, Cigna reported data in 2018 that chronic loneliness in America has reached epidemic levels. This is consistent with an earlier analysis on the potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness.

Looking forward, it would appear that over the next decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Since 2011, research on adolescents has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices and less time interacting with each other, while also experiencing declining well-being. As artificial intelligence further increases the presence and role of machines in people’s day-to-day lives, an unintended consequence is that technology may diminish people’s ability to connect.

The role of chronic stress

Why is social disconnection problematic in the workplace? In answering this question one ought to address the topic of stress. While it is a term we often hear, it is difficult to fully comprehend the far-reaching psychological and physiological consequences associated with stress.

In measured amounts, stress serves to ready the nervous system for the task at hand. Here, odd as it sounds, stress can be a good thing. However, as Dr. Ted George of the National Institutes of Health describes in his book Untangling the Mind,” stress can have negative effects. With increasing levels of stress, the nervous system processes the stress as a threat. In extreme circumstances, stress moves the individual from being guided by rational thought processes to the instinctual responses characterized as “fight,” “flight” and “shutdown.”

When people experience chronic stress, they don’t feel well and often resort to ingesting substances or engaging in behaviors that provide temporary relief. The danger is that this may lead to developing addiction. In a review of 83 studies on addiction with at least 500 subjects, Sussman et al. (2011) found that nearly half the adult US population suffers from one or more addictions that have “serious negative consequences.” The addictions studied included substance addictions (alcohol, eating disorders, mood-altering legal and illegal drugs, and tobacco) and process addictions (dependence upon busyness and work, exercise, gambling, online gaming or social media, shopping, love and sex).

One of the best-known means to cope with stress is to increase positive social connections. Being in an environment that fosters supportive relationships and human connection serves to stabilize the responses of the nervous system, preventing it from processing the stressor as a threat.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael Lee Stallard, co-founder and president of E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group, offers keynote speeches and workshops on leadership as well as team and organization culture. He is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work and Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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