By Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD & Peter Schnall, MD MPH*
Half of adults in the United States experience loneliness, and it was increasing even before the pandemic’s social isolation. Social relationships and adequate social support are key social determinants of health. Loneliness not only has consequences for mental health, contributing to and worsening depression and anxiety, but also to physical health, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. The connection of loneliness to premature death is startling. The impact of being socially disconnected is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, even greater than obesity and physical inactivity. COVID exacerbated social disconnection and loneliness, making an already alarming mental health crisis even worse.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, released these statistics in an Advisory on our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, following a NY Times op-ed “We have become a lonely nation” where he opened up about his own personal struggles with loneliness after losing his job. Dr. Murthy’s many helpful suggestions about how important social connection is and how we need to connect more with friends, loved ones, coworkers, and communities, overlooks the reality experienced by too many US workers. The significant role of stressful working conditions, which affect over 70% of US workers, constrains our ability to maintain social connections, and contributes to loneliness.
Work is an important social institution which functions similarly to education and religion, by providing a sense of identity, belonging/community, and social support. The everyday interactions with coworkers can create a rich network of human bonds. Workplace loneliness research has been ongoing since the 1980s, tying loneliness to burnout, lack of social support, working from home, and poorer job performance. While work can be an antidote to loneliness, there are many work factors that contribute to the crisis in loneliness, including, employment insecurity & job loss, inadequate pay, high workloads and long work hours, and ultimately a lack of work-life balance.
Job Loss/Change and Loneliness
The Surgeon General uses his own job loss to demonstrate how losing one’s work role can mean losing one’s identity and purpose but also one’s social network and social support. After workers leave a job, we lose the daily interaction with coworkers that, when positive, can be a primary form of social support and sometimes the basis of lasting friendships. But, sometimes coworkers are too overloaded with work to socialize or support one another. At worst, coworkers can be openly hostile or workplace bullies. Family and friends are important sources of support during job loss, but we are now often located far from our original family, and friends are often too busy managing their own family and work lives.
Today, we are also more likely to relocate when we change jobs. Many companies frequently require workers to relocate even within the same job. We change jobs more than ever, roughly once every 4 years, especially those in the early stages of their careers, as finding a new job may be the only route to advancement and pay raises.
Retirement from work is another pathway to loneliness. For many of us, work has been the only community we belong to. Many retirees experience loneliness if they have not had the time to develop or maintain their social network outside of work, including disconnection from family due to long work hours before retirement. The social rupture can be brutal. When people retire, they lose many of their friends and social connections, leading to worse physical and mental health, and an increased risk of mortality.
Competitive Corporate Culture: White Collar/Professional Loneliness
The 1980s social darwinist vision of Corporate America as a culture that demands “killer instincts” and “overcommitment” from workers still remains. The C-Suite proponents of this “swimming with the sharks” “hustle culture” work environment, encourage competition between co-workers to produce and perform at a higher and higher level of productivity. This kind of culture is highly “toxic”, eroding coworker support (a major stress buffer), and undermining trust in the organization. In many “white-collar” or professional/technical jobs, your worth at work is judged by outdoing your coworkers, potentially the only way to advance within the organization.
Organizations that encourage this kind of competitiveness and overwork will inevitably see more burnout and turnover.
Overcommitment to the job (whether voluntary or required), can leave very little time or energy to form or keep friendships, family or intimate relationships. Young people, beginning their careers, often forgo a social life in order to “prove themselves” by overworking, or delaying starting a family or choosing not to have children at all, offering some explanation for the higher rates of loneliness among younger people. For workers with family and young children, this kind of toxic work culture is unsustainable and one parent (usually the mother) is forced to choose between family and an over-demanding job, ultimately helping to perpetuate gender inequality. Women leaders have been leaving their jobs at high rates since the pandemic, reporting it is due to stress and burnout, inflexibility, unequal pay and advancement, and harassment.
Inadequate Pay and Long Work Hours: Low wage/Blue-collar Worker Loneliness
Loneliness is high among those with financial insecurity, including low-wage workers. Economic insecurity from inadequate pay can lead many workers to work long hours, put up with high levels of work stress, just to make enough income to provide for their families and keep pace with the accelerating cost of living. One in 10 employees are working 20 hours of unpaid overtime per week, often due to understaffing. Many private and public sector organizations rely on overtime instead of filling open positions, incentivizing longer and longer hours with higher pay. Long work hours can lead to loneliness, a lack of work-life balance and health problems. Urban transit workers for example, earn extra income by taking overtime hours that lengthen their morning and evening driving shifts to the extent that many say they “missed their children growing up.”
The decline of labor unions in the United States also has some important repercussions for loneliness. As well as losing bargaining power to improve loneliness-causing working conditions, especially overtime and long work hours, many workers find fellowship, belonging, and social support being part of a union. The loss of union jobs has meant the loss of worker solidarity and important social connections, especially in the heavily industrialized zones in small towns and cities throughout America. The opioid epidemic and the surge in “deaths of despair” over the last 10 years among those without a college education, can be attributed, in part, to work factors, including the loss of community due to loss of union jobs.
The Healthy Work Approach
To combat our epidemic of loneliness, we need a holistic approach. Loneliness isn’t just an individual problem of not “reaching out” enough — it has “upstream causes” including poor working conditions that dominate the lives of many working people. US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, could have recommended some antidotes to loneliness that appear in his Framework for Workplace Mental Health released in November 2022.
The Five Essentials mentioned include many aspects of “healthy work,” work that will combat loneliness, work stress and improve mental health at the same time. These Five Essentials in the report are:
These five elements do not include all the principles of healthy work that will limit loneliness and foster social connection. The Healthy Work Campaign also recommends limiting long work hours and mandatory overtime, mitigating the effects of night or rotating shift work by providing additional time off for recovery and greater time spent with family/friends, training supervisors or managers in family-supportive practices, reducing job demands and workloads that may extend the work day or work week, or leave workers with little energy to connect with friends or family after work.
The workplace is an essential location for social interaction and support, but it can also cause and exacerbate loneliness. Healthy work will go a long way to limit loneliness as well as chronic illness. Addressing loneliness means we also need to start building healthier workplaces today.
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign. To learn more about healthy work and obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
Dr. Marnie Dobson is the Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 18 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach occupational health classes at UCI, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Dr. Peter Schnall is Co-Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as
the Founder and Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, the
nonprofit which established the campaign. An epidemiologist, Peter has studied the impact of working conditions on the development of
hypertension among workers for over 40 years, as well as promoted
increasing awareness among students, colleagues and the public of the
important role psychosocial work stressors play in the development of
chronic mental and physical illnesses. He is also an emeritus Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of California, Irvine’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine (COEH). (LinkedIn, Twitter)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues: