Efforts to fight loneliness often focus on seniors. Here's why Gen Z workers should be a target, too

As employers take steps to curb health spending by offering more chronic condition resources or help for quitting smoking, they might also want to shift their focus to another insidious cost driver among workers: social isolation.

Health insurer Cigna released its latest Loneliness Index, which surveyed more than 10,000 adults and found 61% of Americans reported that they were lonely in 2019, up from 54% in 2018. The report focuses on the connection between the workplace and social isolation, as Americans spend 90,000 hours on the job over the course of their lifetimes. 

Stuart Lustig, M.D., national medical executive for behavioral health at Cigna, told FierceHealthcare that because workers spend so much time at their jobs, it offers a clear connection between the workplace and social bonds. 

“That’s a lot of hours, and that’s why we’re so focused on doing what we can to mitigate workplace loneliness,” Lustig said. 

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The report details several places where loneliness intersects with employment and bases loneliness on a point scale and questionnaire developed by the University of California, Los Angeles. For example, workers who feel they don’t have a good work-life balance were seven points lonelier than others.  

Employees who work fewer hours than they’d like were also three points lonelier than those who work more hours than they’d like and six points lonelier than those who work their preferred number of hours, according to the survey. 

About 54% of survey respondents said they don’t feel they have good relationships with their coworkers. 

The group that reported the highest levels of loneliness were members of Generation Z, or those aged 18 to 22. A significant majority of Gen Zers (79%) said they were lonely, as did 71% of millennials surveyed. By contrast, half of baby boomers who participated in the survey reported feeling lonely. 

“They’re just entering the workforce, and that’s something to make every employer sit up and take notice,” LuAnn Heinen, vice president of well-being and workforce strategy at the Business Group on Health, told FierceHealthcare. 

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Loneliness or social isolation can have a significant impact on employees’ productivity and work, the study found. Lonely workers were twice as likely to miss a day of work due to sickness and five times as likely to miss a day due to stress. 

Less than half (45%) of lonely workers said they were more productive than their colleagues. Plus, lonely workers said that in a typical month they were twice as likely to consider quitting their jobs compared to workers who aren’t lonely, the survey found. 

What can employers do to help? For one, boost connectivity by fostering a work environment that brings people together, Lustig said. Specific strategies could be forming groups for exercise or volunteering or something as simple as starting off meetings by checking in on team members’ well-being.

“Level setting in that way can help to build camaraderie as well,” Lustig said. 

Lustig said for new employees or younger workers, a company could set them up with a mentor or buddy to help them meet new people and adjust. Employees who reported that they have a “best friend” at work were six points less lonely than others, the survey found. 

RELATED: Industry Voices—How doctors and other healthcare professionals can help end the loneliness epidemic 

Heinen said employers are deploying these tactics as they build a holistic approach to employee wellness that includes physical, behavioral, social and financial help. She said another approach is to design specific spaces around social interaction, such as the break room or a kitchen. 

A company must take time to build a profile of their worker populations and determine what type of support may best fit the individual needs. A cookie-cutter approach won’t work, Heinen said. 

“That’s kind of our sweet spot we’re at right now—how can you best support employees’ holistic well-being?” she said. “There are just so many ways up the mountain.”