Recently the topic of loneliness, isolation, and the need for connection has come up more often in my conversations with friends and clients. It’s been in the news quite a bit too. Dr. Ruth Westheimer was recently named the first Loneliness Ambassador in the US for New York State. (The UK appointed the first Loneliness Minister in the world in 2018.) Last year, the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, an advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community.

In his advisory, Dr. Murthy mapped out a national strategy to advance social connection and offered recommendations for stakeholders from government, schools, and health systems to tech companies, philanthropy and workplaces to address these issues and prioritize connection. I was surprised to learn that loneliness and the sense of isolation and disconnection has a mortality rate greater than that associated with smoking or obesity. Not only does it increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide, but it also leads to physical illness such as heart disease and dementia.

We all have felt lonely at some point in our lives. I can remember periods in my childhood where my shyness and social anxiety left me feeling very lonely. In adulthood, there were times in my career where I felt isolated, especially after a promotion or when I was working on a team where I was the only person of color or was much younger than my colleagues. It wasn’t that people were excluding me outright (mostly), but I didn’t feel that I had meaningful support, nor did I feel understood and seen. I had little social connection during those times, and it was difficult.

A friend of my son recently moved to New York City, and she experienced what many people do – being surrounded by huge numbers of people yet feeling all by herself. It can feel that way closer to home as well. Being surrounded by friends, family and colleagues, yet still feeling pangs of isolation and disconnection. In a recent interview, Dr. Murthy noted that those feelings can come from a sense that those around you don’t understand you or don’t get what you are going through or experiencing.

He also explained that we need three types of relationships in our lives for strong social connection – intimate (such as your best friend, significant other, or sibling), relational (your friendships and family members), and collective (your community connections through organizations, places of worship, etc.). We need all three and need to nurture all three types of relationships.

As a leader in your organization, you may be feeling lonely yourself, or you might be sensing a shift in social connections among your team. You may be realizing that, just because you have people coming into the office several times a week now, doesn’t mean that social connection is happening or there is less loneliness or isolation. The good news is there are steps you can take now for yourself and for your organization.

Dr. Murthy encouraged leaders to “cultivate a culture of connection” by focusing on values related to connection, modeling the right behaviors, and creating opportunities to expand conversations on social connection in the workplace. This is important both internally with your team and externally through your organization’s products, programming, services, and client engagement.

Some of his other recommendations for leadership included:

  • Making social connection a strategic priority at all levels
  • Leveraging existing training, orientation, and wellness resources to educate employees about the importance of social connection
  • Creating policies that protect the ability to nurture relationships outside work such as respecting work/non-work boundaries and supporting caregiving responsibilities
  • Considering the opportunities and challenges of flexible work hours and arrangements how equitably these policies are applied across the organization.

As individuals, leaders need to be willing to recognize their own feelings of isolation. “It’s lonely at the top” is not just a saying. It is real for many leaders who don’t have avenues for connection – intimate, relational, and collective – or who feel they have to show independence and take on the weight of their responsibilities on their own. Here are a few things to do to care for the personal side of leadership and loneliness:

  • Assess your intimate, relational, and collective relationships – and commit time and effort to appreciating and acknowledging the social connection already present in your life and building greater connection in the areas that are lacking.
  • Develop better habits and practices that build human connection – like putting your phone away when in others’ company, reducing social media use, reaching out more regularly, and being more intentional about engaging with people who are different from you.
  • Tune into your body and mind and be aware of your moods and mental shifts. Dr. Murthy said that, in the same way hunger and thirst are signals that you need food and water, loneliness is a signal that you need social connection.
  • Ask for help when these feelings deepen and you are struggling.
  • Take the Surgeon General’s 5-for-5 Connection Challenge where you commit to five actions over five days to express gratitude, offer support, or ask for help.

Loneliness is a challenge for many, whether spoken or unspoken, and leaders play a part in making it easier and safer to talk about and seek out social connections.

When do you feel lonely and what do you do to have greater social connection?
Please leave a comment to share.

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