Loneliness is at the heart of poor physical and mental health, but it's going to take a village to combat this public health epidemic
By: Doug Nemecek, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Cigna Behavioral Health
Most of us would not consider loneliness a public health epidemic, yet startling new findings show that a majority of Americans are lonely – according to a survey that Cigna conducted with 20,000 Americans – and loneliness is at the heart of physical and mental health. Not only did our new study find that most Americans are considered lonely, but those who are lonely are much more likely to be in poor physical and mental health than those who aren’t lonely.*
The survey also revealed the human need for connection and community. People who are less lonely are more likely to have regular, meaningful, in-person interactions; to be employed and have good relationships with their coworkers; and to have found a balance in their daily activities, including getting the right amount of sleep, socialization and work/life balance.*
All of the findings require us to consider how we can work collectively across workplaces, communities and society to address the epidemic of loneliness and help those who struggle with it.
Mental health as mental well-being
First, we need to reframe how we talk about mental health. This means removing the negative connotation behind “mental illness” and to stop thinking of the brain as detached from the rest of the body. I urge us all to start talking about mental health as mental well-being – framing it in the positive to help reduce associated stigma. Refocusing the conversation will better highlight how the mind and body are powerful allies that work as one.
Loneliness in the workplace
Being employed and having good relationships with coworkers reduces feelings of loneliness and is good for your health*. We spend about one-third of our lives at work, and sometimes more, so the relationships you build with coworkers truly matter. We know that loneliness affects how we work. It reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspect of executive functioning**,***. Those who feel lonely at work may feel anxious and nervous and are not as productive. **,***
All of this means that the workplace can serve as the foundation for improving vitality and reducing feelings of loneliness. It starts by creating a culture of inclusion. Have you noticed someone at work who doesn’t engage with others or doesn’t participate in water cooler conversations? This opens the door to ask questions and get to know and understand one another. Managers and leaders of a company can lead the way by building connections with their employees and setting a cultural tone of relationship-building and inclusiveness in the office.
There are other easy actions you can consider. Set a weekly reminder to have lunch with a colleague without distractions, so you can ask questions about his or her life and interests, catch up and engage in meaningful conversation. Take the opportunity to stop and talk with others when you’re walking through the office.
Additionally, our survey results show that spending time at the workplace – in addition to sleeping, spending time with family and physical activity – is a key area where balance is critical. Those who say they work just the right amount of time are least likely to be lonely. It’s important then that managers check in with their employees. While “working too much” or “working too little” is subjective, managers should be in touch with employees to see how they feel about their work/life balance.
Know where to look for help
As you’re working to combat loneliness in your community, workplace or home, don’t feel you have to do it alone. There are several places where you can find helpful resources, such as your employer or health plan. For example, your health plan may offer the kinds of programs that Cigna provides, including a live health support line to provide advice on confidential health and wellness issues, or health coaches who can help people take positive steps. Your employer may offer these or similar resources, and you can ask about programs that might be helpful.
The survey provides valuable insights to help us create change. As leaders in the community, we can all do our part to recognize loneliness in each other and reach out to establish relationships. A meaningful connection with others is essential to overcoming loneliness.* Contact someone you haven’t spoken with in a while and invite him or her for lunch or coffee. Host get-togethers at your house or in a community gathering place. Schedule a recurring visit with an old friend. Whatever you choose, make a plan to work in your community to encourage more face-to-face interaction.
No one person or organization alone can solve the loneliness epidemic. It’s going to require a collaborative effort with motivated individuals and organizations who are passionate and committed. Cigna invites others to join us in the fight against loneliness. Please read more about loneliness in America, and think about what we can all do to tackle the problem and make a difference in the health and well-being of our society: Cigna.com/newsroom/loneliness-survey.
Cigna’s large-scale study measured loneliness by a score of 43 or higher on the UCLA Loneliness Scale*– the clinical measure in determining whether individuals are lonely – and paired it with behavioral questions such as how often people have meaningful, in-person interactions.*
Cigna Is an ICMA Strategic Sponsor. To learn more about Cigna, including links to follow it on Facebook or Twitter, visit Cigna.com.
*U.S. Loneliness Index, Cigna, 2018; https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/.
**Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings, 2017; https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/ambpp.2011.65869714.
*** Workplace loneliness, leader-member exchange and creativity: The cross-level moderating role of leader compassion, Personality and Individual Differences, 2017; https://www.researchgate.net/ publication/308189572_Workplace_loneliness_leader-member_exchange_and_creativity_The_cross-level_moderating_role_of_leader_compassion
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