Loneliness is a growing public health crisis with profound effects on health and life expectancy, which also impacts the workplace. In May 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” detailing the health crisis’ harmful impact on individual and societal health. The report featured an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General on the healing effects of social connection and community.
An in-depth look at loneliness and creative approaches to addressing it was shared during Dr. Jeremy Nobel’s “Loneliness as a Workplace Epidemic” keynote presentation during the Foundation’s recent Mental Health in the Workplace virtual conference. A physician and public health practitioner, Dr. Nobel serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He is also president of The Foundation for Art & Healing and its signature initiative, Project UnLonely, and he is the author of Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection.
What Is Loneliness (It May Not Be What You Think)
Loneliness affects workplace health and productivity and is directly connected to stress and burnout. As Dr. Nobel explained, “Loneliness is a gap that we experience emotionally between the social connections we would like to have and what we do have.” He defined three types of loneliness: 1) interpersonal/psychological; 2) societal/organizational; 3) existential/spiritual. If a person doesn’t feel they have quality connections in their life, they could have one or all three of these types of loneliness.
Loneliness can affect anyone, but overall older adults and young adults are most likely to experience it. This means that younger employees who are new to the workforce are some of the loneliest.
One common symptom of loneliness is an increased risk withdrawing from self-care, meaning that a person might not manage their preexisting mental or physical illnesses effectively if they are lonely.
Studies show that a lack of social connection can have a bigger impact on health than more “well-known” risk factors like smoking, alcohol, physical inactivity and obesity. A report from the American Heart Association indicated that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 30% increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
The Impact of Loneliness on the Workplace
How does this affect the workplace? Just like any challenge, employees bring their loneliness issues to work. Additionally remote work and other common workplace policies can intensify the issue. The impacts can include reduced productivity due to health challenges as well as reduced engagement and collaboration with colleagues. A Project UnLonely case study found that lonely employees cost 22% more per year in medical and pharmaceutical costs.
Loneliness affects a diverse group of people in different circumstances and life stages. The reasons people experience loneliness are complex and can be a result of their personal life, work life and/or community. Because of this complexity, there is no easy solution. Working to understand loneliness and promoting social connection are key to addressing this epidemic.
How Can Organizations Help?
The Foundation for Art and Healing | Project UnLonely has developed programming for organizations around the arts and their ability to help people connect. The creative arts offer a unique way to engage, inspire, empower and connect. The arts include music, theater, dance, visual art, language arts, craft/textile arts, culinary arts and gardening—These are all effective tools to help individuals feel less lonely and more connected.
Project UnLonely leverages the power of creative arts and mindfulness in their programs for older adults, workplaces and young adults. Dr. Nobel finds that creative expression offers a fun, non-threatening way to engage people of all ages and circumstances. Arts-based programs can activate people emotionally and intellectually, opening up opportunities for people to express themselves and share what matters to them. Creativity can promote belonging and make people more open to changing their attitudes and behaviors.
All of their programs include creative expression, mindfulness and social learning. These group activities increase awareness, destigmatize loneliness and promote meaningful connection. The changes seen by organizations utilizing Project UnLonely’s programs include attitude and behavior improvement as well as increased activation/engagement in other programs offered by the organization.
Dr. Nobel emphasized that loneliness education, connection initiatives and creative arts-based activities can be added to existing human resources and wellness programs. Loneliness awareness and reduction activities can be included in health benefits, mental health offerings, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and employee team building programs.
Learn more at www.artandhealing.org