Source | Harvard Business Review : By Emma Seppala & Marissa King
More and more people are feeling tired and lonely at work. In analyzing the General Social Survey of 2016, we found that, compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted. Close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32% increase from two decades ago. What’s more, there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel.
This loneliness is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout. In researching the book The Happiness Track, we found that 50% of people — across professions, from the nonprofit sector to the medical field — are burned out. This isn’t just a problem for busy, overworked executives (though the high rates of loneliness and burnout among this group are well known). Our work suggests that the problem is pervasive across professions and up and down corporate hierarchies.
Loneliness, whether it results from social isolation or exhaustion, has serious consequences for individuals. John Cacioppo, a leading expert on loneliness and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, emphasizes its tremendous impact on psychological and physical health and longevity. Research by Sarah Pressman, of the University of California, Irvine, corroborates his work and demonstrates that while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50%, loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%. In fact, one study suggests that loneliness increases your chance of stroke or coronary heart disease — the leading cause of death in developed countries — by 30%. On the other hand, feelings of social connection can strengthen our immune system, lengthen our life, and lower rates of anxiety and depression.
As anyone who has experienced it can attest to, loneliness is an emotionally painful feeling; it even registers as physical pain in the brain. The social repercussions of this discomfort directly impact work productivity because people disengage. And both the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University and the Gallup Organization have shown the extreme costs to companies of disengagement: almost 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, 16% lower profitability, and a 65% lower share price over time.
In the meantime, experts and companies have struggled to figure out how to counter growing levels of burnout. Many recommendations focus on relieving stress, teaching mindfulness, or reducing workload — all of which treat burnout as an individual condition. But its link to loneliness suggests that greater human connection at work may also be key to solving the burnout problem.