It is often said that it's lonely at the top, but loneliness on the job is a growing issue well beyond the corner office.
American workers are feeling more isolated, and younger workers are experiencing loneliness more so than their older co-workers, according to a new Cigna study.
Three out of every five adults, or 61%, report that they sometimes or always feel lonely, according to the second annual Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index, which is based on a survey of 10,000 adults. That's up 7 percentage points from the 54% reading reported from the company's first loneliness survey a year ago.
The numbers remain even higher for younger adults. Among workers aged 18-22, known as Gen Z, 73% report sometimes or always feeling alone, up from 69% a year ago.
"We had a hypothesis that society — the U.S. specifically — was dealing with an elevated level of loneliness, disconnection," explained Cigna CEO David Cordani. "We can start to see those disconnections manifest themselves in other health issues showing up for individuals … whether you think about it through the lens of depression, stress … or more heavy, complex behavioral issues."
One reason why younger people may feel more isolated, may be their greater tendency to use social media. The study found an increasing correlation between social media usage and feelings of loneliness. Seven out of 10 heavy social media users, 71%, reported feelings of loneliness, up from 53% a year ago. That compares to 51% of light social media users feeling lonely, up from 47% a year ago.
Another reason younger people may feel more alienated could have to do with being at the bottom rung of the employment ladder.
Nearly two-thirds of workers who'd been at a job less than six months reported experiencing isolation, compared to just 40% workers who've been with a firm for 10 years or more.
Entry-level workers scored significantly higher on the Cigna Loneliness index than experienced workers, middle managers and executives. More than half felt there's no one at work they can turn to.
But it is just as lonely at the top of the ladder. Fifty-six percent of senior executives reported feeling there's no one they can talk to, with 69% saying that no one really knows them well.
"They're more isolated from other employees. If we think about the way to mitigate this — which is having coffee, having lunch with your co-workers — that's not a typical workplace culture for a lot of senior executives," said Cigna Chief Medical Officer Dr. Douglas Nemecek. "So, it's something that we have to think about and work on."
When it comes to gender differences at work, men appear to feel much more isolated than women. Forty percent of men reported feeling a general sense of emptiness when they're at work, compared to 29% of women.
Overall, 63% of men reported feelings of loneliness in this year's survey, a ten-point increase from a year ago. For women, the increase was not as sharp; 58% of women reported loneliness this year, up from 54% a year ago.
Why are insurers like Cigna so focused on loneliness now?
"It typically comes from — just like everything in healthcare — you follow the dollar," said Greer Myers, Turn-Key Health CEO and a member of the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness.
The Trump administration has given Medicare plans greater flexibility to focus on the impact of social isolation on the health of older adults. Researchers from AARP and Stanford University found that the government spends more than $6.7 billion annually on additional medical costs for Medicare recipients who lack social contact.
The hope is that by addressing some of the so-called social determinants of health that contribute to isolation among seniors, Medicare can reduce spending on poor health.
"Everybody has always known isolation is a problem … and people are figuring out how to deal with these particular issues as they affect the larger healthcare environment," said Myers.
Cigna researchers estimate that employees who feel socially isolated miss work as much as five times more than their connected co-workers due to stress, and are twice as likely as to think about quitting their jobs.
The insurer is advising companies to do greater outreach about mental health counseling to help workers deal with stress. It also has expanded virtual mental health services to make accessing care more convenient and attractive for younger workers.
Employers should also look for ways to promote greater in-person communication among workers, and programs that foster more connections like affinity groups and volunteer activities.
The study found that people who get more time interacting face to face with others at work feel less lonely or alienated. More than half of remote workers who telecommute, 58%, reported feeling left out at work.
So, is anybody feeling connected and not lonely at work? It turns out that older workers are the least lonely.
Baby Boomers and workers older than 72 are the most likely to feel that they generally have people they can turn to at work and really understand them, with only 18% reported feeling alienated on the job.