As the industry puts a focus on mental health coming out of COVID-19, a new study suggests that loneliness may be a key place to start.
Research from Cigna and Morning Consult finds that more than half (58%) of U.S. adults would be considered lonely. This is on par with pre-pandemic research, which found that 61% of adults are lonely, and made for a seven percentage point increase from 2018.
Loneliness and mental health issues are closely linked, according to the study. Adults with mental health concerns were twice as likely to feel lonely compared to those with strong mental health. The study also found that minorities and younger people were also more likely to be dealing with loneliness.
Three-quarters (75%) of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black adults are classified as lonely, according to the study, figures both substantially higher than the rate of loneliness in the general population. Seventy-nine percent of adults aged 18 to 24 said they feel lonely, compared to 41% of seniors aged 66 and over.
Tracking loneliness is critically important, as it can have significant impacts on physical health as well as mental well-being, Stuart Lustig, M.D., a child psychiatrist and national medical executive for behavioral health at Evernorth, told Fierce Healthcare.
"The biggest take-home point is that loneliness continues post-pandemic to be a significant issue," Lustig said.
The study also found a link between income and loneliness. Close to two-thirds (63%) of those making less than $50,000 per year were lonely, 10 points higher than those making more than $50,000 per year. People enrolled in Medicaid coverage were also more likely than those in commercial plans to suffer from loneliness.
Employers can take the lead in addressing loneliness, as it can hinder an employee's performance in the workplace. For example, loneliness costs employers $154 billion per year due to stress-related absenteeism alone. Less than half (47%) of lonely workers said they are able to work efficiently, and 48% said they are unable to perform to the best of their abilities.
Lonely employees are also three times as likely to be unsatisfied with their jobs, the survey found.
Lustig said that employers are well positioned to tackle loneliness as workers trust them to do so, and they can facilitate interaction in the workplace directly. Solutions they can embrace include leveraging opportunities to help people make connections, such as company town halls or volunteering activities, as well as offering benefits that promote work-life balance.
"Employers really are, I think, going to hold the keys to this," he said. "It's important for employers to really think about how they are protecting people in their ranks. It's lonely at the top but it's also lonely at the bottom."