Loneliness has recently transformed from a quiet personal shame into a top public health menace. A former surgeon general is warning of its dire health consequences, while the U.K. is so concerned about the issue they've actually appointed a minister of loneliness.

Why the sudden interest in social isolation? One reason is a flood of research showing its incredibly high costs, both physical and financial. Loneliness does as much damage to your body as 15 cigarettes a day, studies show, while lonely employees are less productive, more likely to quit, and less satisfied with their jobs.

Total this all up and loneliness is costing us literally billions of dollars a year. Those are numbers that should alarm you not only as a compassionate citizen, but also as a business leader. What can you do to prevent loneliness from sucking money (and happiness) out of your company? The first step is identifying which employees are most at risk of loneliness.

The loneliest and least lonely jobs

That's where new research from high-profile happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor and his colleagues at coaching firm BetterUp comes in. They recently surveyed more than 1,500 American workers to determine who is more at risk for loneliness, writing up the results for HBR.

Most demographic factors, they discovered, can't predict who will be lonely. You can feel cut off from others whatever your age, sex, race, or geographic location. The exceptions -- having gone through a recent divorce or self reporting a limited social circle -- will shock no one. The only surprise risk factor when it comes to demographics is being anything other than heterosexual, though sadly this still makes sense given that most gay or bisexual people will be in the minority at work and may worry about discrimination.

So what did matter when it comes to predicting loneliness? What kind of job you have. Some professions just seem to be lonelier than others, the data reveals, but they most at risk niches probably aren't the ones you'd guess. Here they are, according to BetterUp:

  1. Law. "Legal practice was the loneliest kind of work," the survey found.

  2. Medicine. Those with medical degrees were 25 percent lonelier than those with bachelor's degrees.

  3. Science. The next loneliest types of work was those engaged in technical fields (see below as well). 

  4. Engineering.

  5. Civil servants. "Government employees were lonelier than for-profit and nonprofit workers, and reported slightly lower levels of social support on the job," the data showed.

While the niches most plagued by social isolation might surprise you, those with the lowest incidence of loneliness probably won't. Employees in extremely social, people-oriented roles such as those in social work, marketing, and sales were the least likely to be lonely.

How to target your anti-loneliness efforts

This data makes for interesting conversation fodder, but the researchers suggest it can also help managers better target their efforts to reduce loneliness among their teams. If you know who is most at risk, you can keep a particular eye on folks in those roles.

And what should you do if you suspect a colleague is suffering from social isolation? Being a nice human and asking them to join you for lunch isn't a bad place to start, but there's plenty more expert advice on how to combat loneliness on a team or organization-wide level on offer in the complete HBR post as well. Former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy has tips too.  

Lawyers, doctors, and technical folks, do these results match up with your experience of your chosen professions? 

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Published on: Mar 21, 2018