The false cheer of office parties can’t cure the loneliness epidemic

Image: AP Photo/Kevin Wolf
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Loneliness feels like a personal problem. “It feels shameful and alarming,” writes Olivia Laing in her semi-autobiographical study of loneliness, The Lonely City. “Over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”

This isolation is spreading, with millions of people reporting a sense of being profoundly and uniquely alone. In October, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a “growing health epidemic,” noting that rates of loneliness in the US have doubled over the past 40 years. He called on employers to encourage workplace communities as a solution to this problem.

The physician and former public health official described various group office activities he’d personally developed to combat loneliness. He wrote:

To bring us closer, we developed “Inside Scoop,” an exercise in which team members were asked to share something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings. Presenting was an opportunity for each of us to share more of who we were; listening was an opportunity to recognize our colleagues in the way they wished to be seen.

It’s a nice idea but, as a solution to a widespread deep-seated issue, it’s both shallow and artificial. No doubt Murthy has good intentions, and his medical opinion adds considerable weight to growing concerns about loneliness. The relentless focus on work, though, clearly contributes to an increasingly individualistic, fractured, society.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University, says America’s excessive focus on work “certainly” contributes to loneliness. By contrast, Denmark is consistently rated both one of the happiest countries in the world, and the OECD nation with the best work-life balance. “It’s a cultural practice that when it’s 5pm, people are gone,” she adds.

“Having a diversity of relationships is important,” says Holt-Lunstad. The reality is colleagues can’t meet all our emotional needs. For one thing, relationship longevity is important, and so switching jobs will likely cut short emotional support. Colleagues can provide some support but “they may also be sources of stress,” says Holt-Lunstad. And, finally, she adds, “More intimate relationships provide a source of physical affection and intimacy that you’re not likely to get in a workplace relationship.”

In her book The Outsourced Self, UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild shows how the marketplace has infiltrated private relationships. Services that friends used to provide for free are now provided by companies—matchmaking, baby naming, graveside visits, and even companionship (such as life coaches).

“We’ve put a self-perpetuating cycle in motion,” Hochschild wrote in the New York Times. “The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises.”

Murthy’s suggestion that nurturing social connections at work can counter the very problem work causes is not particularly unique: The notion that workplaces can treat stress has been widely embraced in recent years. This solution sees employers hosting meditation lunch hours as a panacea for the effects of the hugely stressful demands they place on their workforce.

David Bartram, a sociology professor at the University of Leicester and co-editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, recently described how this trend plays out in universities in Times Higher Education. “There’s virtually no chance of reshaping Western universities in ways that would genuinely support employees’ happiness. Institutional leaders all pay lip service to it, but the narrow limits are all too apparent,” he wrote. Instead, staff well-being events are “sometimes downright cringe-worthy.” Bartram complained that one such event, “featuring smoothie-making, yoga stretching, herbal-tea drinking and personal development reading,” was “beyond parody.” “It gives well-being a bad name, especially among critically minded people,” he added.

In his article, Murthy argued that tackling loneliness is good for employers as well as employees. “Strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured,” he wrote.

Though Murthy seems well intentioned, the argument can veer from misguided to sinister. Surely we should combat loneliness for the sake of our health and happiness and relationships, rather than to prop up the excessively work-focused system that drives us to isolation in the first place. We don’t need to depend on the workplace more, but rather less. And the solution to loneliness is far more complex and difficult than team building exercises or office happy hours.

“Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feeling—depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage—are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice,” writes Laing in The Lonely City.

Loneliness is a personal problem, but those who suffer are not personally at fault. Loneliness is a reflection of an increasingly disjointed society, and the epidemic will not abate unless society itself can change.