Who Are the U.S.'s Loneliest Employees, and Why It's important to Know

 

By Shawn Achor, Gabrielle Rosen Kellerman, Andrew Reece and Alexi Robichaux March 28, 2018
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Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

A hundred fifty years ago, poet Emily Dickinson described loneliness as "the horror not to be surveyed, but skirted in the dark." Had she been running a modern company, she might have felt differently.

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 £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion U.S.) in the United Kingdom alone. The U.K. found loneliness to be such an issue, they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness to head up the daunting task of figuring out solutions to what the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls "the most common pathology", with nearly 40 percent of Americans reporting being lonely.

As employers digest the business impact of this epidemic, they've become hungry for a more granular understanding of who's at risk for loneliness, and what they can do to help. Little such data exists, however, leaving them to take their best guess. Thus, we used the lab at BetterUp to collect data on loneliness in the workplace in search of some of the elusive knowledge that can inform an evidence-based corporate approach.

For our survey of 1,624 full-time employees, all participants in a longitudinal study of 4,000 American workers, our goals were two-fold: First, to identify those employees most at risk for feeling lonely at work; and second, to identify key drivers that maximize the benefits of increased social cohesion among employees. Participants provided details on the degrees of loneliness and social support they experienced on a daily basis, both in and out of the workplace.

Our analysis found distinct groups at both ends of the loneliness spectrum: the who's who of loneliness, so to speak, as well as their more fortunate counterparts, the "unlonely." Our data also yielded concrete insights for ways to tackle workplace loneliness that end up helping both your employees—and your company's bottom line.

Profiles of Loneliness

Workers in our sample reported many of the same troubling side effects of loneliness that others have already observed. 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.

Our profile analyses covered a broad range of demographics and work-related variables, trying to spot groups of workers who are particularly at risk for feeling lonely. We used these factors to identify those groups of employees most in danger of becoming "the loneliest worker."

What Doesn't Matter

Some of our hypothesized demographic contributors didn't seem to matter all that much. For example, loneliness and social support were unrelated to geographic location. Staying in the same job longer also didn't shield against loneliness, as we observed only a small decrease in loneliness related to tenure. Nor were gender, race, or ethnicity good predictors.

Salary was a slightly better predictor, but only barely: workers making $80,000 a year only showed about a 10 percent improvement in loneliness and social support over their counterparts making half that much.

Where You Work Matters

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. This is perhaps not surprising, given the known high prevalence of depression among lawyers. At the other end of the spectrum were occupations involving high degrees of social interaction: social work, marketing, and sales.

Respondents who worked in a for-profit industry reported feeling the least lonely and most supported out of all the employment sectors. Government employees were lonelier than for-profit and nonprofit workers, and reported slightly lower levels of social support on the job. This fact might help to explain recent findings on the lowered job satisfaction among federal employees.

Who You Are Outside of Work Matters, Too

The biggest differentiators on the spectrum of loneliness showed up in specific demographic profiles. The more people you have around in your private life, we found, the better for keeping loneliness at bay. Conversely, respondents who reported being single, separated, or divorced reported higher levels of loneliness and lower social support than those currently in a relationship. (Singles were the loneliest of all.) Childless workers reported higher levels of loneliness than parents, and atheists and agnostics were lonelier than members of religious communities.

The solitude of the ivory tower seems to be a real phenomenon, as well. Graduate degree holders in our sample reported higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than respondents who had only completed undergraduate or high school degrees. Professional degrees (law and medical degrees) were the loneliest by far, scoring 25 percent lonelier than bachelor's degrees, and 20 percent lonelier than Ph.D.s.

The most troubling finding we encountered concerned sexual orientation. Identifying as anything other than heterosexual was associated with much higher degrees of loneliness, and much lower social support in the workplace. While more attention has been given recently to sexual orientation in inclusivity initiatives, these results suggest there's still much to be done in this area.

Prosocial Nudges

The portrait of loneliness that emerged from this study is sobering. America's loneliest workers are single and childless. They are well educated, with doctors and lawyers feeling loneliest of all. They are more likely to work for the government. Most personally, America's loneliest workers are non-heterosexual, and non-religious. These are the employees at greatest risk in this epidemic.

Knowing which populations are most at risk of loneliness, however, doesn't necessarily translate into knowing what to do about it. Big Potential, for example, explores the critical role that positive social support plays in advancing professional success. Simple adjustments to workers' daily routines can make a big difference—going for lunch with that new connection, for example, instead of alone. Opening a conversation with a small offering of peer-based praise can be sufficient to forge a lasting social bond. Over time, these prosocial nudges can steer a workplace in the right direction, creating a healthier, more supportive culture.

When workplaces become more supportive, performance and retention improves. Our study found that employees who experienced above average levels of workplace social support were more likely to have received a raise sometime in the past six months. They were also less likely to plan on quitting their job in the next six months. A robust workplace support network is not just a nice-to-have—it's become a business imperative.

Shared Meaning as Amplifier

Not all forms of social support, however, are equally impactful. Big Potential emphasizes the value of "leading from every lunch seat." Leadership entails identifying and sharing meaning no matter what one's role in an organization. Helping others find the meaning in their own work magnifies the meaning one experiences personally.

Our survey found that this approach translates into demonstrable improvements on key human resources metrics.  While social support was positively associated with raises and lower turnover, employees who reported feeling a sense of shared meaning with coworkers showed even greater gains on both metrics.

What's more, the shared meaning "boost" grew even stronger in supportive work environments. Workers in our study who reported having both high levels of social support and a strong sense of shared meaning with colleagues saw the likelihood of getting a raise jump up another 30 percent, and intent to leave fall by an additional 24 percent. In other words, a sense of shared meaning seems to amplify the positive effects of social support.

How Managers and Colleagues Can Help

Within large organizations, close colleagues and managers are best positioned to identify workers suffering from loneliness. The signs may be subtle—social withdrawal, diminished mood—so it's useful to know the risk factors we've outlined here. These specific populations are at particular risk of isolation, dissatisfaction, and turnover.

If a co-worker seems to be suffering from loneliness, what can managers and colleagues do to support them?

Our study suggests that the single most impactful leadership behavior you can undertake to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues. Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for you. On a collaborative project, frame the efforts in terms of their collective advancement of your company's mission, rather than getting bogged down in individual deliverables as ends unto themselves. Use collective wins as an opportunity to celebrate the entire team. This reinforces social cohesion through a shared sense of accomplishment, and avoids leaving some left out in the cold.

Dickinson concluded her poem by hinting that there are, in fact, two approaches to coping with loneliness: one can either "illuminate" it, or shut it away. After many decades of opting for the latter strategy—politely ignoring this taboo topic—scientists and HR leaders alike have come to see the wisdom in the former. We need more data, not less, guiding our approach to intervention—in order to help our employees and our businesses thrive.

Shawn Achor is New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage (Currency, 2010) and Before Happiness (Crown Business, 2013). Gabriella Rosen Kellerman is the chief innovation officer; Andrew Reece is a behavioral data scientist; and Alexi Robichaux is co-founder and CEO of BetterUp. This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2018. All rights reserved.

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