America’s Hidden Public Health Crisis—Loneliness—Directly Impacts the Bottom Line. Here’s How Creative Expression and Engagement in the Workplace Can Help.

Posted by Mr. Jeremy Nobel, MD, May 19, 2016 0 comments

Most of us has had times in our life when we’ve felt lonely and isolated—and it’s a lousy feeling. But a growing body of research suggests that not only does loneliness make you miserable—it can kill you.

Recent research indicates that health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation are comparable to the dangers of smoking and obesity, increasing the likelihood of premature death by up to 30%. With the alarming increase in the rate of loneliness and isolation in our society, America is facing one of today’s most urgent—yet largely hidden—public health issues.

Fortunately, we in the arts have ways that can help. Opportunities for creative expression and engagement offer powerful alternatives to the impacts of loneliness, which often range from depression, substance abuse, and suicide, to a multitude of physical disorders as well.

Why should loneliness be on the radar of employers and how can the arts help?

Studies show that almost a third of the U.S. feels significantly lonely in their public lives, including in their workplace.  This isn’t only bad for an individual’s health, it’s also bad for business. The ripple effect is seen in increased absenteeism rates and insurance costs, as well as a drain on productivity as employees suffering from loneliness and isolation impair teamwork and collaboration.

Organizational research has demonstrated that workgroups suffer when even one member is exhibiting symptoms of loneliness, often manifested by a reduced ability to fully contribute to collaborative efforts. As the lonely member withdraws from work and from their team and is less productive, co-workers recognize and respond with similar reduction in cohesive engagement and focused collaboration, often hindering team effectiveness.

People who are lonely and disengaged at work also deliver far less “discretionary effort” than people who have a support system or a go-to person at work, notes Steven Miranda, managing director at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies in a Fortune article. Think of it as the difference between those that show up at the office in the morning eager to get started, and those that can’t wait for 5 o’clock., but not caused by laziness or lack of interest, but simply a personal sense of detachment from the collective and shared effort of workplace activities.

Whereas disengagement impacts the bottom line, we know that the arts are a powerful and transformational means to connect and engage. The arts have long provided emotional context for the human experience. Now a growing body of research demonstrates that engagement in creative expression can also contribute to better health and wellbeing, primarily by making individuals feel more connected to themselves and others. Individuals, regardless of background, who are empowered to express themselves through the various arts—music, drama, dance, visual and media arts, writing, and even culinary arts, textile arts and gardening—can reduce the physical and emotional burden associated with various types of health conditions and life circumstances, including loneliness. 

What can workplaces do?

To address this growing public health concern, the Foundation for Art & Healing, in partnership with Americans for the Arts and the Northeast Business Group on Health, is launching a signature initiative: The UnLoneliness Project™. Our primary goals are to raise awareness about loneliness and isolation within various populations, including the workplace; offer practical and effective ways to address it; and document our results and findings for continued research on the issue.

We know that creative expression helps in developing alternative perspectives about one’s self and the world. The very act of being creative provides a sense of personal accomplishment and enhanced self-confidence. Connecting through creativity is a powerful approach to addressing loneliness in many aspects of life, but especially in the workplace, allowing employees to use their current skills in new ways as well as develop new ones. Studies suggest that millennials who frequently participate in workplace volunteer activities are more likely to be proud, loyal and satisfied employees.

As we launch The UnLoneliness Project, the Foundation continues to expand its efforts to collaborate with a range of community stakeholders to increase awareness of workplace loneliness and isolation challenges, along with its burden to employers and employees. Your help is urgently needed to move past the silence and stigma associated with loneliness, and, through creative expression, help us tackle this significant growing public health concern and its impact in the workplace.

Please join us!

The UnLoneliness Project will over time—and with your input—become a resource to offer creative arts-based online experiences, downloadable tools, and templates for onsite-programs to effectively address workplace needs. Users will know this portfolio of resources as Creatively Connected™ and they’ll be low-cost, easy-to-deploy, engaging and convenient. We’ll also provide organizations with ways to measure and report on outcomes, so that over time they can be enhanced and refined.

Creatively Connected programs, delivered either face-to-face or online, enable evidenced based interventions that allow participants to use creative work to better “connect” with themselves and others through structured art making, sharing and mindful reflection. Even when done anonymously through a digital exchange platform, a “sharing bond” is formed between those creating and those interpreting what’s created: a photo, a video clip, a shared expressive thought or feeling, a personal story.

On the UnLoneliness Project website you’ll find exclusive video testimonials from leading artists and public figures who share how creative expression enabled them overcome loneliness. They were produced to inform, inspire, and initiate a lively dialog on how creative arts can make us all less lonely— we’re eager to have you participate!

Please visit www.unloneliness.org to learn more. If this work resonates for you or your organization, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly at [email protected]. And whether at the workplace, within your community, or in your personal lives, we invite you to use creative expression to be UnLonely…we all stand to benefit!

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