By Jennifer Benz
Oct. 3, 2019
It’s impossible to avoid the headlines about loneliness and its consequences.
Being lonely hurts our health. It spans generations. And it’s a topic of discussion at HR conferences and in many of the publications you read.
“Loneliness is the new smoking,” one headline announced after a couple of big surveys were released last year. Cigna’s chief medical officer confirmed it, saying, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”
Yikes! So many people are lonely that it’s reaching public health crisis proportions. The 2018 study by The Economist and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22 percent of Americans and 23 percent of folks in the U.K. always or often feel lonely, lack companionship or feel left out or isolated.
Even with all the talk about loneliness and how pervasive it is, there isn’t much common-sense conversation around what to do about it.
Cigna’s survey, conducted in the U.S. the same year, had even more striking results:
Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
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.
Even with all the talk about loneliness and how pervasive it is, there isn’t much common-sense conversation around what to do about it. That’s why a recent Scientific American article caught my eye.
It revealed that benefits leaders actually have one solution to the loneliness problem in hand, already. Titled “A Solution for Loneliness,” the article outlines three ways volunteering helps alleviate loneliness and its related health impact.
Volunteering is a meaningful way to connect with people and make new friends.
It can make up for the loss of meaning that is often brought on by loneliness.
It protects against the cognitive decline (such as memory loss) that often results from loneliness and isolation. Volunteering is a way to stay engaged and stimulated, build new neural connections, and become more resilient to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The benefits of volunteering are many, as we learn from respondents to Great Britain’s National Survey on the Volunteer Experience. When asked to reflect on what they get out of volunteering, 93 percent said they enjoy it; 89 percent said they meet new people; 86 percent said it broadens their experience of life; 77 percent said volunteering improves their mental health and well-being; and 68 percent said it helps them feel less isolated.
So, there you go. Many companies are already (unwittingly?) helping to prevent loneliness through company-sponsored volunteer programs. People love them, and it doesn’t take a huge investment to create a program that builds energy. I’ve worked with Intuit for more than a decade, and we hear incredible feedback about its We Care & Give Back program, which gives employees 32 hours per year to volunteer and matches donations to charities up to $5,000 per year.
Salesforce is another company that has made a name for itself from its commitment to community. Salesforce employees are eligible for seven days of paid volunteer time off per year. Everyone gets a $2,500 company match for charitable donations, and those who complete the full 7 days of volunteer time get another $2,500 matched. These programs play heavily into recruiting and best-places-to-work awards — and they are something people talk about.
Still, promoting volunteerism is but one way the workplace can support people and help them feel less lonely. We can help nurture relationships at work and help people participate in social activities.
And we can build cultures of caring that help people bring their full selves to work. Some of the proudest moments I’ve experienced building a team came from helping to create a culture that supports people during their best times and their toughest times.
That means thinking about the big stuff (how do we handle it when someone needs to be out to take care of themselves or their family?) and the little stuff (do we encourage chitchat on video calls to help remote folks feel more connected?).
Work can and should be a place filled with meaningful relationships — relationships that ward off loneliness.
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