On May 2, 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared that widespread loneliness is the next public health crisis affecting the health of at least half of the U.S. population and likened the health risks to that of smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Dr. Vivek Murthy stated,

“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing. Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”

The social isolation that people are experiencing has far reaching consequences, ranging from serious mental health issues to increased risk for stroke, heart disease, dementia, and even premature death. This is a stark wake-up call to all of us and calls into question many of our habits and practices on a societal level.

May is Mental Health Awareness month and given the declaration Dr. Murthy has made, that a recent survey published by the CDC showed that nearly 22% of adults received mental health treatment in 2021, and that there has been an uptick in self-harm and suicidal ideation among young adults, it is not something that employers can ignore. But what to do?

We all know we need to provide access to mental health care services as part of our benefits packages, including Employee Assistance Programs, and allow employees to use their PTO time for mental health days. But the reality is that we are living in an era in which the stressors and pressures on most people are far beyond what they used to be in past generations—financial pressures, social isolation, single-parent families, lack of resources and support, gun violence, climate, and the politics that divide.

While we love and hate remote work for many reasons, it may have also played a role in exacerbating isolation and loneliness for some workers. Perhaps, what people are experiencing isn’t really a mental health crisis but instead a perfectly appropriate and healthy reaction to very challenging circumstances that are affecting all of society, all age groups, all genders, and people from all walks of life with some populations experiencing worse conditions than others.

These issues are systemic, and the impact to the workplace is significant. As an HR Consulting Company, we have seen an increase in challenging leave and accommodation cases, an increase in workplace incivility stemming from individuals who are already struggling with their mental health and stressful lives, hostile workplace concerns, DEI related challenges resulting in claims, and of course—absenteeism and turnover.

A few things employers can do to help improve the lives of employees as it relates to loneliness include:

• Sponsoring monthly social events and encouraging or even incentivizing employees to attend in order to boost social interaction outside of work time.

• Create a culture and traditions that increase employee interaction such as company sponsored volunteer events that happen during or outside of work time.

• Encourage or even consider sponsoring social clubs or committees as part of company offered benefits, such as a cooking club, a film club, a parent club.
o Some things to consider include establishing a policy and procedure guide that clearly lays out an approved schedule for social events, how events will be funded, safety strategies for events—including off-site, and the approval process for events as well as parameters for inclusivity.

• Consider bringing your company EAP provider on-site for mental health care during the work day.

• Make it a practice to discuss openly and to encourage employees to establish healthy habits for taking care of themselves and make it permissible for employees to set those needs as a priority . . . more to come on this is in the next blog post.

Founded in 1987 in Santa Rosa, California, The Personnel Perspective is a full-service HR management consulting firm specializing in human resources, leadership development and training, and recruiting. The firm’s core belief is that a company achieves organizational excellence through its people. Contact us to learn more: (707) 576-7653.