The decline of social connection and rise of loneliness in the United States has caught the attention of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, which prompted the publication of a new advisory.
“The harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished,” writes U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community released on May 2, 2023. “Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation [on individual and societal health], we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.”
Dr. Murthy believes that this is an “urgent public health issue” that calls for much greater public awareness as well as substantive action, and therefore it is worthy of the serious step of issuing a Surgeon General’s Advisory. Not only does the new advisory lay out an in-depth case that America is facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation that is harmful to our country and its citizens, it also provides a national strategy to increase social connection. We’re encouraged that the advisory calls for an increase in connection across all areas of daily life and makes recommendations to the following stakeholder groups: national, territory, state, local, and tribal governments; health workers, health care systems, and insurers; public health professionals and public health departments; researchers and research institutions; philanthropy; schools and education departments; workplaces; community-based organizations; technology companies; media and entertainment industries; parents and caregivers; and individuals.
We wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Murthy’s assessment. For nearly 20 years, we’ve been advocating for greater connection in the workplace and in life outside of work because we know the profound positive impact connection has on individuals and groups. The loneliness epidemic that has been growing, and was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has made our mission more than just about improving engagement and productivity in the workplace. We are grateful that we had the opportunity to provide advice and feedback to the team from the Surgeon General’s office that prepared a report on improving mental health and wellbeing in the workplace that was issued in October 2022.
“If we fail to [build more connected lives and a more connected society],” warns Dr. Murthy, “we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners—angry, sick, and alone.”
Advisory Recommends “Cultivate a Culture of Connection”
Of the advisory’s six pillars to advance social connection, we’re focusing this article on the pillar of developing and sustaining cultures of connection. Here is how the advisory presents this foundational piece:
A culture of connection is vital to creating the changes needed in society. While formal programs and policies can be impactful, the informal practices of everyday life—the norms and culture of how we engage one another—significantly influence social connection. These shared beliefs and values drive our individual and collective behaviors that then shape programs and policies. We cannot be successful in the other pillars without this underlying culture of connection (italics ours).
Such a culture of connection rests on core values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another. Everyone contributes to the collective culture of social connection by regularly practicing these values. Advancing this culture requires individuals and leaders to seek opportunities to do so in public and private dialogue, schools, workplaces, and in the forces that shape our society like media and entertainment, among others. Behaviors are both learned from and reinforced by the groups we participate in and the communities we are a part of. Thus, the more we observe others practicing these values, the more they will be reinforced in us.
All types of leaders and influencers (national, local, political, cultural, corporate, etc.) can use their voices to underscore these core values and model healthy social connection and dialogue. Media and entertainment shape our beliefs through the depiction of stories. These narratives can help individuals see themselves in stories and help to reduce stigma, thus enabling more connection. Further, our institutions should invest time, attention, and resources in ways that demonstrate these values.
Specifically regarding the role of workplaces, the advisory recommends the following:
- Make social connection a strategic priority in the workplace at all levels (administration, management, and employees).
- Train, resource, and empower leaders and managers to promote connection in the workplace and implement programs that foster connection. Assess program effectiveness, identify barriers to success, and facilitate continuous quality improvement.
- Leverage existing leadership and employee training, orientation, and wellness resources to educate the workforce about the importance of social connection for workplace well-being, health, productivity, performance, retention, and other markers of success.
- Create practices and a workplace culture that allow people to connect to one another as whole people, not just as skill sets, and that fosters inclusion and belonging.
- Put in place policies that protect workers’ ability to nurture their relationships outside work including respecting boundaries between work and non-work time, supporting caregiving responsibilities, and creating a culture of norms and practices that support these policies.
- Consider the opportunities and challenges posed by flexible work hours and arrangements (including remote, hybrid, and in-person work), which may impact workers’ abilities to connect with others both within and outside of work. Evaluate how these policies can be applied equitably across the workforce.
How We Can Help
If you are ready to put the advisory’s recommendations into action, we can help. Because many actions that boost connection reflect common sense, leaders often assume they are occurring in the organization (when in fact they are not). We’ve come alongside a wide range of organizations and leaders at all levels over the past two decades and we understand that what may be common knowledge may not be common practice. Our work focuses on helping you to find ways to make connection practical and integrate it into your day-to-day workflow. We’ll help you develop a connection mindset and then equip you with a connection skill set to increase connection.
If you would like to speak with us about the services we provide, contact me (Michael) at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (203) 550-0360. We provide keynote speeches, and half-day and one-day interactive workshops and training on creating a culture of connection. In addition, check out our book, Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, now in its second edition, and our Linkedin Learning course, “Creating a Connection Culture.”
Katharine P. Stallard coauthored this article.
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash