National Employee Benefits Day 2024 is coming up on April 2. The theme this year is Creating Community to Combat Loneliness and we’re breaking down the types of loneliness and its impact on workplaces.  We’ll be providing various resources on what employers and plan sponsors can take to combat loneliness within their own organizations to leverage social capital to build a stronger workforce. Here is a helpful resource from Workplace Strategies for Mental Health outlining strategies for addressing loneliness and building social connections. 

Loneliness is directly linked to health, life and work satisfaction outcomes. The antidote to loneliness is authenticity. What this means is that if you can be your authentic self, you are much less likely to ever be lonely. This includes being honestly self-aware as well as being able to connect with at least one other person in a genuine way – as your authentic self. Many of us can relate to being lonely in a crowd or group where we feel we don’t belong. Loneliness is less about being around other people and more about being our whole selves. When we accept and appreciate who we really are, we are even less likely to feel lonely when we are alone.

Why loneliness matters

Our friends, allies and supporters help us celebrate and acknowledge good things that happen in our lives, and they can also be a source of strength and support when we face the inevitable challenges, set-backs and disappointments that are part of life. 

In fact, social connection can have many benefits. It:

  • Increases our sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Boosts our happiness and reduces stress.
  • Improves our confidence and sense of self-worth.
  • Helps us cope with big life changes and challenges like divorce, illness, job loss and grief.
  • Encourages us to make healthy lifestyle choices and manage negative thinking and mood.

In short, social connection can help us be more resilient to stress, which in turn, can improve our health and sense of overall well-being. Research shows that when we feel supported, our blood pressure is lower, our hormone function is better, our immune system is stronger, and we have lower levels of inflammation. Strong social ties may even help to stave off memory loss as we age, buffer against depression, and even help us live longer.

Experiencing a sense of belonging and connection in our workplace is also an important factor, as it impacts our ability to successfully collaborate, move our ideas forward, and makes any change, uncertainty and stress we experience at work more manageable. Because we spend many of our waking hours at work, the connection we feel there can impact other areas of our lives. 

If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone

Loneliness is a very common feeling, More than 1 in 10 people aged 15 and older said that they always or often felt lonely when asked in the Canadian Social Survey for August and September 2021. 3 in 10 said they sometimes felt lonely.  Additionally, in 2023 the U.S. Surgeon General rereleased an advisory: Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.

Loneliness can be triggered by a number of things, for example:

  • Shyness or social anxiety.
  • Re-location for work or other reasons.
  • A recent setback or disappointment.
  • Loss and grief.
  • Stepping back from a social circle that wasn’t promoting healthy lifestyle choices, such as when recovering from an addiction.
  • Stigma or exclusion. If you feel alone at work you may want to suggest Evidence-based actions for inclusion or team building activities to your leader.
  • Stress. Answer the questions in Assessing your current situation to get a picture of what’s going on in your life right now. 
  • Anxiety and depression, which can also contribute to feelings of loneliness and can act as a vicious cycle. Self-assessment health tools can help you explore whether further assessment would be beneficial. 

Making social connections

If you or a colleague are trying to grow your social network, options include:

  • Going to events that interest you. Go to a book reading, public talk, art walk or club where you can meet like-minded people. Don’t worry if you don’t have anyone to go with – you might be surprised at how easy it is to strike up a conversation with people you share interests with. 
  • Signing up for a class or professional development course. Taking a class at a local community centre or college, or through work, can be a low-stress way to build rapport and meet new people. You can go alone or invite a personal or professional acquaintance you’d like to get to know better.
  • Volunteering.  Volunteering in your community or on a committee or fundraising campaign at work can help you build strong connections with others who share similar values and interests – and helping others can also boost our mood.
  • Inviting people. Spending time with people you enjoy is good for your mood and potentially a way to build new social connections through them. If anyone has invited you out in the past, they may be an ideal person to invite to spend time with you. Also consider others who may be lonely and looking for connection.
  • Saying yes. It can be hard to find time, or maybe you feel shy or nervous about spending time with new people or people you don’t know very well. If you’ve been invited to something you’re interested in, go for it! Some folks who are shy have made a pact with themselves to say yes whenever they’re invited to something, even if they have hesitation or fear. If they don’t enjoy themselves, they allow themselves to say no the next time they are invited to a similar setting.

Be kind to yourself, set reasonable goals, and remember that making new friends and building bonds takes time. 

Tips to strengthen connections

Everyone feels lonely sometimes, but there are things that can be done to deepen social bonds in one’s personal life, and at work:

  • Make time. Most of us feel stretched, and it can be hard to prioritize connecting with our friends or making new friends, but this is an important strategy to reduce loneliness. 
  • Be dependable. Strong connections are made by keeping commitments you’ve made both at work and in your personal life. This shows respect and lets people know you’re there for them.
  • Open up. It can feel uncomfortable to show vulnerability and share things about yourself and your experiences, but when you do, you’re letting people know you trust them, potentially deepening your connection with them.
  • Lend an ear. When you make space to listen to people’s concerns and support them to find solutions to their challenges, you are building connection.
  • Be kind, show gratitude and pay it forward. Kindness, gratitude and generosity of spirit not only boost mood, they also help improve your well-being and create connection.

It can be hard to prioritize social connection and address loneliness, but making the time can leave one feeling healthier, happier, and more productive.

A word of caution 

The virtual world has opened up an opportunity to connect with people with similar interests from around the globe. Online connections can provide individuals to play online games with, new skills to learn or to people to discuss hobbies or interests with.  These which can be opportunities to reduce loneliness.  But social media can also add to our sense of loneliness for any of these reasons:

  • If you believe that the happy images and events that people share online represent the majority of their life experience, you may feel that in comparison your life is boring. 
  • Most people only post highlights of happy times and don’t share their inevitable moments of frustration or isolation. Further, when people connect online, they’re more likely to exaggerate or outright lie about themselves and their circumstances. 
  • Cyberbullying is also a reality because people who may be more civil and respectful face-to-face often have less resistance to sharing nasty or unkind comments when online.
  • Although the majority of people online are also looking for connection, some may be looking to take advantage of you. Even with great online discussions, keep your personal and financial information confidential and be sure to video chat with someone before you choose to meet them in person to help eliminate deception.

These cautions should not prevent one from making social connections online, but should be kept in mind. 

Additional resources

Work-life balance tips. Balancing your work and personal life can be challenging and stressful at times. These tips and strategies can help.

Assessing your current situation. Ask yourself these questions to get a picture of what’s going on with you right now. Take this list to your health professional to help them provide you with wellness options.

Health resources. Tools and resources for managing your own health and wellness, as well as information for helping others. Find credible information about managing well-being and mental health-related concerns.

Mental health apps. Links to free evidence-based apps, some with paid options, which can help with your mental health and wellness. The list includes apps for Windows, IOS and Android devices.

Join the International Foundation on April 2 for a free Benefits Day webcast, The Loneliness Epidemic: How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go From Here with Dr. Anjali Rameshbabu. Visit the National Employee Benefits Day webpage for additional resources on creating community to combat loneliness at www.ifebp.org/BenefitsDay

References

Ozbay, F., Johnson, D.C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C.A., Charney D., Southwick S., Social Support and Resilience To Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May; 4(5): 35–40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/

Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. (2019). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860

Manage stress: Strengthen your support network (2019). Retrieved from American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/topics/manage-stress-social-support#:~:text=Join%20a%20club%2C%20sign%20up,Seek%20out%20peer%20support.

Sohn, E., More and more research shows friends are good for your health. The Washington Post, May 26, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/more-and-more-research-shows-friends-are-good-for-your-health/2016/05/26/f249e754-204d-11e6-9e7f-57890b612299_story.html

Butler, C., Research suggests that good friends may actually be great medicine. The Washington Post, March 14, 2011.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/research-suggests-that-good-friends-may-actually-be-great-medicine/2011/03/07/ABMbvwV_story.html

A huge thank-you to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health for letting us share this helpful information with our benefits community. Contributors include: Alex Kollo Coaching and Tools Mary Ann Baynton Trinelle Brown Workplace Strategies team 2022 to present

Cara McMullin

Communications Specialist Favorite Foundation Product: Word on Benefits Blog Benefits-related Topics That Interest Her Most: Equity and Inclusion, Workplace Wellness Personal Insight: Cara loves live theatre, concerts, and festivals – lots of fantastic options in Wisconsin. In her spare time, you can also find her reading, streaming TV/movies and spending time with family and friends at local restaurants, outdoor concerts, and farmers markets.

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