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Three Questions: Prof. Marissa King on the Cost of Loneliness

There is increasing evidence that isolation has a powerful negative effect on health and productivity. Last fall, Vivek Murthy, the 19th U.S. surgeon general, wrote that we are facing a loneliness “epidemic,” and in January British prime minister Theresa May launched a government initiative to combat loneliness among the elderly and disabled. We asked Yale SOM’s Marissa King, an expert on social networks, how we can reinforce the connections that help sustain us.


What’s the impact of loneliness in the workplace? Is there a loneliness “epidemic” as Vivek Murthy ’03, the 19th U.S. surgeon general, wrote in Harvard Business Review? Or are we just now identifying a problem that has always existed?

One in five adults are lonely. That number hasn’t increased dramatically in recent years but it has enormous consequences for individual and societal well-being. Although you could consider the loneliness epidemic an epidemic of discovery, that isn’t a reason to minimize the importance of addressing it.

What can managers do about this problem?

The key to solving the problem of loneliness isn’t to create more social interaction. Happy hours, lunches, and ping-pong tables aren’t going to make people less lonely. In order to address loneliness, we need to create higher-quality interactions. This is particularly true in the workplace where people often feel they have to don armor and check key parts of themselves at the door. Creating a culture of listening, getting teams to engage in perspective taking, and increasing reciprocal self-disclosure are fairly simple ways managers can improve the quality of connections among employees.

Are there broader societal impacts, on public health or economic productivity? Is there a role for government in solving this problem?

A lack of social connection has been found to be more detrimental to our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. To put it more concretely, loneliness is as bad for your physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who are lonely are at greater risk for alcoholism and depression.

Beyond the consequences for our physical well-being and mental health, loneliness also has a negative effect on work performance. It impairs task performance and limits creativity. While loneliness is in and of itself problematic, it is also strongly correlated with burnout. On the flip side, people who report being in high-quality connections have higher cognitive function, more resilience at work, and higher levels of work engagement.

While it is always great to have government support and resources, loneliness is an interpersonal and community problem. Ultimately, we need to change the way we interact with one another and our communities.

Professor of Organizational Behavior