Combatting America’s Health Crisis from Loneliness

May 6, 2018
Mike Stallard

News last week made me sit up and realize the growing extent to which people today are suffering from a lack of deep connection with family, friends and colleagues at work.

The research I’m referring to was released on May 1st by Cigna, the insurance company, as it announced that “most Americans are considered lonely.” Previous estimates of the loneliness of American adults were in the 26-40% range. The research findings, based on a survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults who took the UCLA Loneliness Scale inventory, the gold standard of loneliness assessments, included these breakdowns:

  • 54% said they always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well,
  • 46% report sometimes or always feeling alone,
  • 47% report sometimes or always feeling left out,
  • 43% said they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others, and
  • only slightly more than half (53%) having meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis. 

Cigna’s national survey on the impact of loneliness adds to other research that points to an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in America and other market democracies, including the UK, Germany and Australia. Research has shown that loneliness contributes to rising incivility and violence.

In contrast, human connection reduces incivility and violence. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has called connection a “superpower that makes us smarter, happier and more productive” and Julianne Holt-Lunstadt’s meta-analysis research found connection was associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. A powerful property of human connection is that it converts toxic “killer stress” into “challenge stress” that is life-giving and makes us perform better (see this article). 

Connection is more than a superpower for individuals. It’s also a superpower for organizations. It increases employee cognitive firepower, employee engagement, strategic alignment, quality of decision-making and innovation.

In releasing the results, Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna pointed out: “There is an inherent link between loneliness and the workplace, with employers in a unique position to be a critical part of the solution. Fortunately, these results clearly point to the benefits meaningful in-person connections can have on loneliness, including those in the workplace…” 

Sometimes that loneliness on the job is a result of being in a culture of control or a culture of indifference that leaves the person feeling uncared for or left out. You can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.

Over the last two weeks I’ve spoken about human connection and connection culture to audiences in Utah, Texas, New Jersey and California. Numerous times, individuals approached me afterward and shared their concern for family or friends who are suffering from loneliness.

The Cigna research should make us see that the epidemic of loneliness is an urgent matter that affects our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces and society-at-large. To combat rising loneliness, the UK government announced the creation of a minister of loneliness. It’s going to take more than government programs to make people feel connected. We can each play a part by making sure we stay connected, and that we are intentional about keeping an eye out for the lonely and socially isolated among us and reaching out to connect with them. Each of us needs to up our efforts to connect, in our personal lives and at work.

Nick Medley of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is a superhero when it comes to connection. Take a look at this ABC News video that profiles Nick. While you are at it, look at these videos on superconnector leaders Frances Hesselbein, Howard Behar and Dr. Herb Pardes. Let their examples inspire you to develop the courage to connect and reach out to those around you. I’ve devoted more than 15 years to understanding the role of connection and its impact on individuals and organizations, and helping people create and sustain cultures of connection. Reading Fired Up or Burned Out, Connection Culture or our e-book “100 Ways to Connect” will give you practical steps you can take to boost connection around you.

The superpower of connection only comes where mutuality exists. In other words, you must care for and serve others and be cared for and served by others for the superpower of connection to manifest. Giving and receiving are part of the package.

I challenge you to mark this day, begin being more intentional about connecting and just watch what happens. You will experience greater productivity, prosperity and joy that comes from having an abundance of connection in your life.

More From Michael Lee Stallard:

Protecting Your Employees (and Yourself) from the Stress-Connection Gap

10 Practices to Create a Workplace That May Lengthen Your Life

Why Connection is a Matter of Life and Death

Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.

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