“During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes,” Vivek Murthy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, writes in a moving new piece in the Harvard Business Review. “It was loneliness.”
Murthy has helped address public health issues like the Zika virus and Ebola outbreak, so for him to say that “loneliness is a growing health epidemic” is no small statement. And for good reason: Murthy points to evidence that shows how “rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” he writes, and that more than 40 percent of American adults today report feeling lonely.
In the piece, Murthy shares what he’s learned throughout his own career about the importance of making deep connections at work, for the good of your physical and mental health and for society as a whole.
The loneliness epidemic is affecting the workplace so intensely today in part because the same flexibility so many enjoy via working at home or as part of the gig-economy, can make it harder to share meaningful exchanges with other people, he writes. Even in crowded offices, on coffee breaks or during team-building exercises it’s hard to get beyond surface-level relationships. But it’s the deep relationships that offer us benefits and alleviate loneliness: “a more connected workforce is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout,” he writes.
You’ve probably felt lonely before. We all have. But what you may not know is the mounting evidence that links loneliness to a host of health issues. Murthy writes that “loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that cause by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” Murthy writes that loneliness has also been linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and dementia, and can make us less creative and generally worse at doing our jobs. That’s a problem, especially considering that “in the workplace,” he writes, “many employees—and half of CEOs—report feeling lonely in their roles.”
The good news is that seeking stronger social connections at the office, where many of us spend a good chunk of our waking hours, is actually simpler than you might think. Murthy details five ways to help forge strong relationships at work, and they’re worth a closer read. But here are a few notable takeaways.
Focus on Quality Over Quantity
Murthy writes that “you can be surrounded by many people and have thousands of connections on LinkedIn or Facebook and still be lonely,” and on the other hand, have just a few people you engage with and feel a strong sense of connection from them. Murthy suggests looking at the quality of the relationships in your office and asking yourself some questions to try to understand them better. For example, “do employees feel that their colleagues genuinely value and care for them?” and “would they characterize their relationships with colleagues as being driven more by love or by fear?”
Know that Good Relationships Require Give and Take
Strong, healthy relationships are those “characterized by meaningful shared experiences” where both parties give and receive, Murthy writes. These relationships need to be “grounded in love and informed by kindness, compassion and generosity,” he writes. He notes that many consider these positive emotions “soft,” but in fact, embracing these emotions can actually improve your performance and resilience.
Murthy also shares an exercise from his days as Surgeon General. His office created a weekly sharing opportunity called “Inside Scoop” where team members would get five minute to share something about themselves through photos. Murthy writes that people who were usually quiet started sharing, and that people felt valued by the team afterwards.
“I share not what my office did as the antidote to loneliness but as proof that small steps can make a difference,” he writes of the exercise. That’s the crucial message: the loneliness epidemic is a huge problem, but small steps can make a difference.