Your employees are lonely – here’s what to do about it 

Here’s a proactive approach to social wellness and mental health.

Americans are lonely. Three out of five Americans self-report being lonely, a phenomenon that has signaled so much alarm as to prompt Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to issue a public health crisis plan around loneliness in May of this year. 

The proportion of lonely American workers is significant. Specifically, 97 million American workers are lonely, according to a study issued by health insurance provider Cigna. Some have even argued that our workplace cultures are the cause of widespread loneliness. As the Cigna study emphasizes, lonely employees are less productive, more prone to absenteeism and greater flight risks. But these impacts to the bottom line seem almost beside the point – loneliness shortens life spans, increases the risk of illness and generally lowers quality of life. 

Assuming we don’t want to create workplaces that maintain or promote loneliness, it makes sense to explore what options exist for addressing the root causes. One major intervention might be to invest in social well-being. 

What is social well-being? 

Social well-being refers to a person’s experience of being able to develop and maintain positive relationships with others, especially in communities. Unlike self-care or more individualized wellness routines, social well-being focuses outward, rather than inward. As social researcher Corey Keyes has pointed out, the experience of social well-being is subjective because how socially “well” someone is depends on their assessment of their life circumstances and social interactions. 

This subjectivity can help explain why some employees feel perfectly content with their current engagement experiences and others don’t. It’s not just about the number and quality of relationships employees have with one another, but what individual scale they use to measure each. One employee may find that with an annual service-learning activity, monthly Happy Hours and the chance to check in with colleagues throughout the day, they feel fully satisfied and socially well. Another employee may call this setup paltry, disingenuous and woefully insufficient. 

Indicators of social well-being

Since social wellness is a fundamentally relational health marker, it makes sense to focus on how employees engage in the broader workplace through recurring social duties and interactions. Your responsibility as people leaders is first and foremost to create the conditions for what Keyes argues are the five key indicators of social well-being. For each indicator, consider what is and isn’t in your control, focusing only on what you can do. 

1. Social integration

Social integration relates to how employees rate the quality of their relationships to their team and the larger organization. For a people leader, creating the conditions for social integration might mean ensuring employees can participate on their teams and in the broader organization. For example, one useful social interaction practice could be giving all employees quality Internet access so they can meet with colleagues virtually or are invited to learn more about things happening in the organization outside of the regular team. To design for social integration, ask: What barriers exist for employees trying to participate in our workplace community? 

2. Social acceptance 

Social acceptance hinges on trust, specifically the experience of trusting your colleagues and believing in their positive qualities. Trust is a slow process, one that requires consistency and reliability on all sides of a relationship. As an organization, do you say what you mean, and do what you say? 

3. Social contribution

Social contribution is whether an employee assesses themselves as able to contribute personal value to their communities. Employees wondering about their social contribution might ask: Am I team player? Does the team value me? Do I contribute something greater to this community? It’s up to their people leaders to construct and update the systems that allow employees to easily answer these questions and see the impact of their work. 

4. Social actualization

Social actualization refers to how an employee perceives their social world, including its potential and ability to evolve. In the case of an organization, an employee who experiences social actualization believes they are part of a community that is meeting its potential through its structures, employees and habits. Is every employee able to answer the question: What is the organization’s vision? And, are we able to reach that vision?

5. Social coherence 

Social coherence is an employee’s assessment of the quality of their relationship to the organization. One way to measure how your organization ranks with social coherence is the classic employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) which asks one question: How likely are you to recommend the organization as a place to work on a scale of 1-10? 

The “three Rs”

If keeping up with all five indicators feels like a daunting prospect, the good news is that to achieve your social well-being goals at work, you can use a simpler method previously described in this column.

The three Rs, which I argue are the building blocks for workplace belonging, are relationships, resources and reciprocity.

  • Relationships are meaningful connections between two or more people that result in feelings of acceptance, trust and care.
  • Resources refer to all the things employees need to be able to form meaningful relationships.
  • Reciprocity means that within the ecosystem of your team, everyone is engaged in mutual give and take.

There are many ways to address burnout, isolation and mental health concerns with the three Rs, but when it comes to employee loneliness, try these three tried-and-true methods. 

  1. Offer ideas and suggestions for how employees can connect with each other and make sure managers know to prioritize social time in meetings and throughout the work week. 
  2. Make sure employees have the time to invest in their relationships by limiting a certain number of meetings or tasks per week and setting aside a certain time budget for social experiences. 
  3. Create a dedicated space to ask for help through an internal messaging or chat platforms, employee resource groups, open HR office hours or an employee-led community focused on common workplace issues. 

As much as the current conversation around workplace loneliness focuses on how to mitigate its effects, it’s important to note the many positive benefits of a socially well workplace. Job descriptions that highlight well-being and culture are 49 percent more likely to receive applications, according to LinkedIn. As the Cigna study showed, socially well employees are more reliable, competent and likely to deliver high quality work, not to mention stay with organizations longer and showcase positive sentiments. Socially well people are healthier, live longer and report more meaningful lives. Now more than ever, we should focus on how we can bring employees together and nurture their sustained connections.