As employees begin to return to the office – some part-time, some full-time – a clearer understanding is emerging of how severely COVID-19 impacted mental health. Among the many changes employees said they experienced while working remotely, the most common were feelings of loneliness caused by long periods of isolation.
Unfortunately, for many people it does not end there. Surveys have shown that many of those who experienced loneliness during the height of the pandemic also had increased feelings of anxiety, stress and even depression. While pets and Zoom calls certainly helped people get through long hours of remote work, they are not a long-term substitute for in-person interaction with other people.
According to a Cigna survey, the “loneliness epidemic” persists even as the pandemic begins to loosen its grip on the country.
Loneliness Impacts Workers of All Ages
In the survey, Cigna (No. 24 on the 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) reported that 58% of U.S. adults are now considered lonely. The survey data also indicates those with mental health issues are more than twice as likely to experience loneliness. “Given this association and widespread mental health concerns following the pandemic, the need to continue to raise awareness about loneliness remains,” according to a Cigna news release.
Respondents to CVS Health’s Care Insights 2021 revealed similar issues, with 30% saying they experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness while working full-time from home during the pandemic (CVS ranked at No. 28 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list). Others reported anxiety (37%), stress (35%) and depression (30%). Alarmingly, many reported their use of alcohol, nicotine and opioids increased.
Some Demographics Experience Higher Levels of Loneliness
The Cigna survey also found some groups reported feeling loneliness more than others.
Underrepresented racial groups – About 75% of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black adults are classified as lonely. That’s significantly higher than the 58% for all populations.
Those with lower incomes. About two-thirds of adults earning less than $50,000 are considered lonely, 10 points higher than those who make $50,000 or more.
Young adults. Young adults reported feeling lonely at a rate almost two times the rate for seniors – 79% (for 18- to 24-year-olds) compared to 41% (66 and older). Those between the ages of 18 and 34 also reported feeling “left out” at a higher rate (42%) than those 55 and older (16%).
One area that showed little difference is gender. The survey found that 59% of women and 57% of men reported feeling lonely.
The Impacts of Loneliness
Feelings of loneliness come with many negative consequences. Long-term loneliness is associated with both physical and mental health issues, including high blood pressure, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, and depression.
Loneliness also can keep people “out of the loop.” While interacting with other people at work makes the office more enjoyable, it also provides a conduit for critical information. Studies have shown that important work information often gets communicated via personal relationships and informal settings, according to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Even in the office, feelings of loneliness have an impact. Coworkers may avoid a lonely person, misinterpreting their loneliness for aloofness or a self-centered disposition. This can create a spiral that continues to worsen the situation.
In addition to the impact on individuals, loneliness also hurts companies. The Cigna survey found that those who reported feeling lonely also said they were less likely to work as efficiently as their peers. They may become disengaged, reducing productivity and decreasing performance.
Cigna estimated businesses lose $154 billion each year because of stress-related absenteeism alone. Also, lonely employees are more than twice as likely as those who are not lonely to miss a day of work due to illness. They are five times more likely to miss work due to stress.
Tips For Addressing Loneliness Among Employees
Bringing employees back to the office can help with some aspects of loneliness. However, both for in-office employees and those who work at least some time from home, it’s important to stay aware of and address the issue of loneliness.
Tips for managers to address this issue from Cigna, the Wharton School of Business and Harvard Business Review include the following.
Consistently Check in With Employees
A simple but powerful step. Not connecting with an employee can result in them performing much more poorly on the job. These check-ins should be one-on-one conversations during which the manager can set clear goals, objectives and timelines with the employee, helping them to stay focused. It also can help managers and employees identify any issues the employee is dealing with, giving them a chance to address them early.
Change the Emotional Culture
The emotional culture of the workplace provides guidance on what emotions are okay to express. Environments where people treat each other with respect, care and compassion lead to coworkers treating each other better and paying more attention to each other.
Conversely, according to Wharton, a “culture of anger in which frustration, irritation, and annoyance are frequently expressed” heightens the damaging effects. Such behavior, much like loneliness itself, can become contagious.
Provide Psychological Safety
Part of a good emotional culture is creating psychological safety. This involves developing an environment safe for interpersonal risk-taking. This includes asking questions, raising concerns, admitting mistakes, and offering ideas. Lonely people who feel stress about making a connection with others will feel more likely to do so if they know they’ll receive positive reinforcement. Such an environment creates a better chance for people to forge high-quality connections based on empathy and interdependence.
Assume People are Lonely
A mistake that managers want to avoid is mistakenly believing someone is not having difficulties with loneliness and skipping consistent contact and check-in meetings. With the pandemic raising awareness of the loneliness issue, a more useful position is to assume everyone is struggling with loneliness at some level. Keep in mind that most employees do not advertise the fact they feel lonely.
Offer Flexible Health Benefits
Health plans that include coverage for mental health and wellbeing services can better meet the evolving needs of employees. Employers also should prioritize a work-life balance, encouraging workers to take time off and spend it with others. Perhaps most importantly, in all these areas managers should work to destigmatize loneliness and the use of mental health services to help address the issue.