Loneliness Kills — How it’s harming your employees…and how to help them

January 10, 2017

Loneliness is more deadly than obesity and more common than most people think. The bottom line is this: untreated mental illness in the workplace is expensive. It costs as much as $1,600 per employee, per year and in terms of depression specifically, those who meet the criteria for the disease but receive no treatment for it use two to four times the healthcare resources of their colleagues. The result is higher rates of absenteeism and presenteeism, decreased productivity, more workplace accidents, higher disability costs, higher overall medical costs and ultimately, lower profits.

Of course, it’s not as if employers— specifically, Benefits and HR leaders— haven’t tried a variety of workplace programs to address the high rates of mental health issues. From EAPs to telehealth solutions to educational content and digital programs, employers have spent the money and taken the time to make big changes to improve mental health rates, always with the best of intentions.

Unfortunately, if any two employers are alike, it’s in the shared feeling that so many of their efforts have seemingly been wasted, because engagement is still low. Worse: there has been little measurable decrease in mental health rates even when employees do engage.

It is always difficult to identify the root of any problem but there is one often-ignored topic that according to research may be the key to driving down mental health rates: that topic is the epidemic of chronic loneliness.

The good news is that chronic loneliness can be prevented.

In the past few years, social scientists and psychologists alike have begun to discover that loneliness is not just a widespread and worsening tragedy; it actually has a profound and lasting impact on a person’s health and abilities. Chronic loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity, and as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In terms of the workplace, chronic loneliness has been shown to cause withdrawal, which then affects motivation and performance, leading to— you guessed it: drastically lower productivity and overall job performance.

The good news is that chronic loneliness can be prevented. At the core of loneliness is the issue of each person’s connectedness— to themselves, to other people, and to larger groups. Sadly, 25 percent of Americans lack even a single person to whom they feel they can confide their negative thoughts and feelings; and the vast majority only have one person. It is this fact that makes health coaching— specifically, health coaching based in the person-centered-therapy (PCT) approach— such an effective intervention to stop loneliness before it becomes chronic.

Loneliness and how it kills

We’re going to delve deeper into how to solve loneliness but first, let’s clear up what it is. According to John Cacioppo, the preeminent scholar on loneliness, it is defined best as “perceived social isolation.” This subjective nature of loneliness makes it hard to spot. A person could be surrounded by people, yet if they don’t feel as if they belong to that group of people, they will feel lonely. Short-term, this happens to humans all the time: new job, new town, new school. The assumption is that these people will eventually adapt and find connections to these foreign environments, but that until then, he or she will temporarily feel stressed, anxious and ill at ease. For many people, however, that state becomes the new normal.

Loneliness is a stressor on the body and so it causes a number of internal reactions to happen: a person’s level of cortisol (the fight-or-flight stress hormone) becomes elevated, destroying healthy tissue and bone over the long-term; the immune system weakens; blood pressure rises, as does white blood cell production, and inflammation in the body becomes widespread. On top of all that, studies show that lonely people continually wake up throughout the night, resulting in perpetual fatigue the next day. The cumulative toll on a person’s health is overwhelming.

The surprising power of person-centered (PCT) coaching

If someone is lonely, the thing they want most in their life is genuine friendship. So, what makes a good friend? Someone who listens to that person and cares and supports them. Someone who will accept that person for who they are, and only encourage growth when that person is ready.

A good friend is truly interested in that person’s wellbeing, and will try to be resourceful when asked to help. A person-centered (PCT) coach is trained to be all of those things, as it is the most effective way to drive engagement and behavior change. PCT-trained coaches connect with employees at a human-to-human level. Each employee is treated as a close friend, not a patient or a problem to fix. Every session in PCT is non-directive, non-prescriptive, and focused on the person discovering answers to their own problems and questions rather than being told what to do.

Most importantly, a PCT coach abides by three main principles that guide every interaction: empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity. In other words, the employee is completely and unconditionally accepted and supported, thus feeling “able to express his or her true emotions without fear of rejection.”

A PCT coach abides by three main principles that guide every interaction: empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity.

Anytime you turn to research, what’s clear is that PCT is effective in treating serious mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety. Because it has the dual goal of enhancing a person’s self-esteem and opening their mind to new experiences, it will prevent a person who’s susceptible to reclusive retreat before he or she blocks out the world. In other words, it will prevent a bout of loneliness from becoming chronic.

What does PCT coaching look like?

Sometimes hearing from PCT practitioners themselves is better than any theory or statistic. At LifeDojo all our coaches are trained in PCT. We interviewed a few of them to shed light on what the employees they work with face, and how they work with them to overcome challenges.

“A client comes to you as a coach, because they feel they’re not as shiny as they could be,” says England-based LifeDojo coach Richard Graham. “What they’re expecting is to be told [how to change.]”

Then, he says, they find out that that’s not what the coaching process is about. Describing the goal-setting process as mapping out a person’s life in every facet— love, diet, exercise, and so forth— he says the point is to get the individual to see patterns of where they have control and where they are not satisfied. Once the area of change has been chosen, the coach has 12 weeks then to do what PCT coaches do best: listen, cheer from the sidelines, strategize with them, offer tips to stay on track, and show support when things get hard. Equally important, he avoids the temptation at all times to either force the person into a specific routine or change, or to rush them through the process.

In fact, pacing is key. San Francisco Bay Area LifeDojo coach Julia Miller has found that sometimes it’s the employee who’s moving too fast, and so she’s had to learn how to gently slow a person down without killing their drive.

“Enthusiasm doesn’t always mean ‘ability to enact change,’ ” she says. “[I’ll say to them:] ‘That’s awesome. I’m so glad you’re excited but let’s talk about tomorrow. How are you going to make that happen?’ ”

The answer is through baby steps. By choosing one habit on which to focus, employees have become empowered to make additional changes, so that one small move forward— writing every day in a journal, for example— turns into the enormous leap of making more human connections.

First: Employees develop a genuine, trusting relationship with their coach, while focusing on preventive mental health and resilience habits like positive journaling, exercise, better sleep and more. If they do that, it does not take long until the employee is re-establishing their self-esteem and confidence.

Bringing it back to Loneliness

So how does PCT and habit-by-habit change relate to loneliness and mental health? Simple. By developing a genuine, trusting relationship with their coach, while focusing on preventive mental health and resilience habits like positive journaling, exercise, better sleep and more, it does not take long until the employee is re-establishing their self-esteem and confidence.

Over time, PCT coaches can then support the focus of building and strengthening personal relationships; with family, friends and colleagues; leading to a network of support and ultimately, positive mental health.

How could PCT work at your company?

Managing employee mental health is extremely hard. No matter what benefits & HR leaders at employers seem to throw at it, engagement and improvement seem unachievable. Yet, by identifying one of the root problems as loneliness, and effectively addressing loneliness through PCT interventions, programs and coaching, employers can turn the tide on mental health.

Curious where to begin?  We are happy to share our experience with other employers or simply chat about the complexities of tackling the problem. Simply call us or request a demo and see how it might work for your team.

Request a demo

Infographic: Loneliness, the invisible problem

Topics: , , , .