Why loneliness is a top health concern for workers

TELUS Mental Health Index reveals 45% of workers under 40 don't trust people at work

Why loneliness is a top health concern for workers

Loneliness is a silent health crisis looming over workplaces around the world, including here at home, according to TELUS Health which recently released the TELUS Mental Health Index. It found 45 percent of workers under the age of 40 do not have relationships with people they trust at work.

“What we're seeing is that they're reporting very worrisome levels of social isolation and loneliness,” explains Dr. Matt Chow, chief mental health officer at TELUS Health. “They don't feel supported at work, they don't feel that they have trusted colleagues that they can turn to at work.".

The findings of the study echo a growing concern highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO), which now equates the effects of loneliness to well-known health risks such as smoking and obesity. With workers under 40 being hit the hardest, factors like eroding social support, economic instability, and disruptions caused by the pandemic compound the issue.

"There's a lot of factors at play here...inflation, housing affordability, being earlier in one's career and having less savings to rely on, the economy's been softening…there have been job losses," says Dr. Chow.

The workplace, once viewed as a social hub, has transformed amidst ongoing debates over return-to-office policies and flexible work arrangements. For younger workers, this new reality exacerbates feelings of isolation, as they navigate an environment devoid of traditional mentorship and stability.

Dr. Chow underscores the urgent need for employers to address this crisis head-on: "Workplaces really need to educate themselves around the seriousness of this issue... Social isolation probably creates as much physical and mental health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day."

The topic of loneliness was recently brought up at the Women in Safety Summit where Si Lew gave a presentation on leadership. She is the director of self-care & wellness at the North American Association of Asian Professionals Toronto chapter.

“I was lonely too, for years, even though I have a partner, I have kids, I look like I'm busy" says Lew. She regularly talks about health, safety, and performance and when people say they are tired, stressed out, and anxious it often means what they’re really feeling is loneliness. “The answer is I am lonely; I have no connection with anyone."

Lew says workplaces need to create “psychologically safe containers” where employees are free to express themselves however they want.

TELUS has developed tools like the Workplace Strategy Index, empowering employers to gauge their mental health initiatives' effectiveness and adapt to evolving needs. Dr. Chow advocates for modernizing employee assistance programs to offer flexible, accessible mental health support.

"It's just so critical that employers step up and make sure that they are acknowledging the extent of that issue, and addressing it," asserts Dr. Chow. "Employees should raise their voices, and overcome stigma and silence around this issue... this is the modern era's major public health concern."

Despite the daunting nature of the challenge, Dr. Chow remains optimistic. "These are risks that we can actually address... This is not just an academic issue, but actually something that can be measured and addressed."

In a world where the lines between work and life blur, the battle against loneliness in the workplace emerges as a defining health issue of our time—one that demands urgent attention and concerted action from employers, employees, with health and safety professionals leading the conversation.