Labor Market: All the Lonely People

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Oct 26, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity.

I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch.

I just want someone to talk to.

And a little of that human touch.

Just a little of that human touch.

— Bruce Springsteen

In America and much of the developed world people are increasingly isolated and largely alone. A report from Cigna mentions that some 60% of American adults feel socially isolated and some degree of loneliness. Younger people report the most acute feelings of loneliness —  79% of Gen Z, 71% of millenials, and 65% of Gen X. Additionally, more men (63%) than women (58%) report being lonely. 

Loneliness is not just a private problem; it affects how people work and impacts both professional and personal wellbeing. Lonely workers are less engaged, less productive and have lower retention rates. They are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work due to stress. 

One study found that an employee’s loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organization, hindering productivity and team effectiveness, and often ends in the person leaving. The inverse is that having employees with close friends at work shows a strong relationship to improvements in customer engagement, retention, profit, and safety incidents.

A Network of Two

The fastest growing demographic in America is single people, living alone. The share of American households with just one person has been rising for 50 years, from about 17% in 1969 to about 29% in 2019. Today, about 36 million Americans live alone. And increasingly, they have few close friends. In 1985, the average American had about three close friends, according to the General Social Survey. In 2004, that number had fallen to two, with a quarter of respondents reporting having no close friends. The survey question hasn’t been asked again since, but data from other sources suggests that the situation hasn’t improved: A more recent survey found that the average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years. 

A major cause of widespread loneliness is a big decrease in civic and social engagement. Membership in religious organizations, such as churches, mosques, or synagogues, has dropped from 70% as recently as 1999 to about 50% now. Participation in service and fraternal organizations such as Rotary has decreased by 44% since 1970. Loneliness is even cited as a reason for the popularity of voice assistants like those from Google and Amazon, with the devices substituting for friendship or family.

What Can Employers Do?

Making friends is hard, and work is a major source of friendships for people past their early twenties. People who are lonely in their private lives often compensate by having social connections at work. Over 80% of Americans have at least one friend at work, and 30% have a best friend. But now, for the large number of people working from home, that source has been all but eliminated. The absence of casual hallway chats and conversations during lunch breaks potentially makes workers feel more isolated

Employers need to make active efforts to get their new hires and employees to find supportive colleagues.  Loneliness not only contributes to low productivity, but in extreme cases can lead to suicide. The rate has been rising for the last 20 years, having risen 30% since 1999, but the pandemic has led to an increase in suicides nationwide. Work stress is a leading cause

Furthermore, the problem is overwhelmingly a male one. Male employees are fifteen times more likely than females to commit suicide because of workplace issues. The likelihood is higher among younger workers: A recent survey by the CDC found that 1 in 4 young adults (aged 18 to 24) has considered suicide in the previous month.  

Remote work, which is likely to become the norm, also creates stress, the reduction of which depends on participants making extra effort to communicate. Part of the problem is that our “conversations” with others, including work colleagues, are largely textual (email and chat). Virtual work largely neutralizes the social aspects of jobs. 

It’s too early to tell whether having more verbal conversations via Zoom makes any difference. There isn’t a vaccine for loneliness and one isn’t likely to be developed, so avoiding loneliness requires deliberate efforts to do so. The British government appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the problem; employers may need someone to do the same.

Click here for more Labor Market columns.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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