An Epidemic of Loneliness
In a recent advisory, the U.S. Surgeon General raised concern about an “epidemic of loneliness”, noting that “time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country” expressed a sense of loneliness to him, saying they feel “isolated, invisible, and insignificant”.
Indeed, roughly half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. The negative impact of that loneliness pervades nearly every aspect of life. From the Surgeon General, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.” On a broader scale, “The harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”
And, with the rise of the gig economy, the downsizing of offices and the move to more remote work, the increased use of technology to communicate, and the decrease in gathering together to learn, worship, exercise, etc., people are feeling lonelier than ever.
A Call to Action
The Surgeon General went on to say, “Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being. But we have the power to respond. … We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us—individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities—working together.”
Among other things, he calls for us to “make social connection a strategic priority in the workplace” and to “create practices and a workplace culture that allow people to connect to one another as whole people, not just as skill sets, and that fosters inclusion and belonging., to “create opportunities and spaces for inclusive social connection and establish programs that foster positive and safe relationships, including among individuals of different ages, backgrounds, viewpoints, and life experiences.”
The Coworking Movement
It’s not surprising that workplaces are made the Surgeon General’s call-to-action list. Long before the extent of Americans’ disconnectedness reached epidemic levels, people were already struggling to find a work situation that … worked.
Our workplaces used to provide a greater sense of purpose and belonging. Employees were, in a sense, family. You found a good company and, in many cases, worked there for life. But, work changed and so did our relationship with it.
In response, a movement to change how we work has been underway in the U.S. since 2005. Early coworking pioneers defined a set of values meant to break down barriers and build a strong sense of community. Those values centered on being open and accessible, on sharing, connecting, helping, encouraging, and sustaining each other.
The vibe was contagious and coworking communities who embraced those core values began popping up all around the world. Today, there are over 40,000 independently owned, community-focused coworking spaces.
This is why Cowork Frederick exists
My partner Glen and I first learned of the grass-roots coworking movement back in 2007 and immediately knew we wanted to be a part of it. Newly married, we had just spent years as remote workers and micro-biz owners, working from home alone. Glen described it as “isolating”. Busy as I was, I felt strangely bored and restless. And, even with the “extra time” in our day from not having to drive to an office, we often felt exhausted. To put it bluntly, it sucked. But, the alternative of driving to an office an hour away or routinely flying to client sites, didn’t seem much better.
In 2012, we opened Cowork Frederick.
Unlike incubators, accelerators, and other organizations that focus on startup entrepreneurs, Cowork Frederick has always sought out freelancers, independent contractors, remote workers, and solopreneurs – people who made a life choice to work outside the typical corporate America environment. That choice brought great freedom, but it also introduced a problem.
Here’s how I describe it. You finally work up the courage to launch your own business or ask your boss if you can work from home and there it is. No more driving to the office. No more feeling like you’re being watched. No one judging you for taking breaks to do laundry or walk the dog. Finally, you’re free! It feels great! All that pent-up excitement from dreaming about this time is carrying you forward.
Then, slowly, your energy level starts to drop. You feel less motivated. You’re taking too many breaks to head to the fridge, the backyard, or back to bed – trying to bring back the energy you had earlier. You know there are things that need to be done, but you have trouble focusing. If your work involves generating new ideas, it’s especially hard. You feel less … happy. You think to yourself, “What is going on? This is what I wanted!”
Here’s the thing. People need people.
Sure, disconnecting from the corporate office gave you the autonomy and flexibility you wanted, but you’ve lost something else very important. Human beings need a sense of belonging. It’s how we’re made. Even people who generally love alone time benefit from a sense of community and a feeling of connection.
“I missed the camaraderie of an office setting. I also focus better when I’m around other people working. Coworking gives you a real community versus a more transient setting like a coffee shop. Plus, it’s just more fun than being at home. My cat is great, but he’s not a good conversationalist.”
The Surgeon General’s advisory notes, “Social connection is a fundamental human need, as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter. … We human beings are biologically wired for social connection. Our brains have adapted to expect proximity to others. Despite current advancements that now allow us to live without engaging with others (e.g., food delivery, automation, remote entertainment), our biological need to connect remains.
“The lack of social connection poses a significant risk for individual health and longevity. Lacking social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. … It is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia.”
Think about it. There’s a reason solitary confinement is used as severe punishment. Why would we choose to work in a mild form of such punishment?
But, you might point out, now we can connect with people all around the world using technology.
Technology has helped many stay in touch with loved ones and saved countless miles of travel for business meetings. Studies show the benefits of two-way visual interaction, such as with Facetime or Zoom, exceed those of audio-only phone calls, emails, and live chats. More static or time-delayed interaction such as with most social media platforms does not. And, none of it is as beneficial – or effective – as in-person interaction.
Further, our increased use of technology is increasing our sense of loneliness. Studies show that, due to the allure of social media apps, people often replace better-quality social relationships with poorer ones. Research has shown that using the Internet for interpersonal communication actually has a negative impact on people’s quality of life. In contrast, talking to a friend or family member face-to-face, even for just 10 minutes, has a positive impact on quality of life.
But what about work? Technology allows us to avoid going to the office or traveling to client sites for meetings. Early research has already found that in a hybrid work environment, where some workers are in the office and some are working from home, there is more employee engagement and inclusion when meetings are held virtually. That said, unfortunately, virtual meetings have taken over many people’s workday and they are finding the experience exhausting.
Stanford University researchers found that “Zoom fatigue,” the mental exhaustion that occurs after a day of videoconferencing, is real. Why? Our brains have to work harder to make up for lost context in screen-based interactions. We miss non-verbal cues and have a harder time reading the room. And, seeing your own image (which can be turned off, btw) is basically like performing in front of a mirror, which, for many, is stressful.
Conversely, in-person communication makes our brains happier. And, study after study shows that spending time in close proximity to others also makes our hearts, figuratively and literally, happier too.
That’s not to say that technology or the freedom to work, meet, and virtually connect with others wherever we are is inherently bad. It’s pretty good. But, as evidenced by our current epidemic, virtual connections are not enough.
The Surgeon General’s advisory defines belonging as “a fundamental human need—the feeling of deep connection with social groups, physical places, and individual and collective experiences.” It goes on to say that, “individuals who immerse themselves in community-based activities are more likely to experience stronger feelings of social belonging and develop trusting relationships with fellow community members. … When community-based participation becomes the norm, social networks grow and produce high levels of trust among themselves, which facilitates the efficient exchange of information and sharing of resources within a community.”
This sense of belonging, developing trusted relationships, sharing of information and resources, and community-based participation are at the heart of the coworking movement. We’ve long talked about “connectedness”, but it’s more. We’re also about “belongingness”.
Indeed, a study of the issue of social connection and remote work showed “that respondents experienced working from a third space like a coworking site as more socially fulfilling than working from the office (64%) or from home (67%). One major reason is that a coworking space offers not just the flexibility employees crave in terms of where they work, but also with whom.”
This is key. People in a coworking space have chosen to be there. They are opting into community. Coworking spaces offer opportunities to make rich personal connections that can be difficult to achieve in office or home environments.
“It’s even better than I expected. There’s no catch – just people who really support you and are interested in what you’re doing.”
As I write this, I can’t help but reflect on the close-knit community at Cowork Frederick and all the things they do for each other. Just in the last few weeks, I saw multiple instances of “coworkers” working together to work through a challenge or to share knowledge. Several people sat together at a table outside for an impromptu afternoon chat with a new member. Someone brought in homemade stew to share with everyone for lunch. Members of our community helped another member practice and perfect her pitch (she won!). People contributed big time to a cleanup project. Today, a bunch of people went hiking together. The list goes on. I have to say, I feel pretty fortunate to be a part of all this.
When we ask people what they like about Cowork Frederick, they almost never say it’s the historic building or our downtown location. It’s not the high-speed internet or locally roasted coffee. What they say (we actually asked at our recent 11-year anniversary party) are things like, “I cowork because of the people – now my friends are here.” One person, waxing poetic, wrote, “I cowork because of community – the quiet and joyful noise and the warmth of people.” When asked for one word to describe who we are, the word we most often hear is “family”.
“I feel welcome. I’m part of a community. It’s more like friends coming together to work than going to a sterile office.”
Give it a try
In his advisory, the Surgeon General offered these words of encouragement: “Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being. But we have the power to respond. By taking small steps every day to strengthen our relationships, and by supporting community efforts to rebuild social connection, we can rise to meet this moment together. We can build lives and communities that are healthier and happier. ”
There are many ways to do this. If you’re among those who often work at home alone, consider giving coworking a try.
- Surgeon General: We Have Become a Lonely Nation. It’s Time to Fix That.
- Advisory: The Healing Effects of Social Connection
- Internet Communication versus Face-to-Face Interaction in Quality of Life
- Internet paradox. A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?
- On the stress potential of videoconferencing: definition and root causes of Zoom fatigue
- Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue
- Why You Need a Third Place (And How to Find One)
About the author:
Julia Swanson Ferguson has over 30 years of business experience. After earning a B.B.A. in Accounting and an M.S. in Management Information Systems, she began a fast-growth career that included business process re-engineering, system design, project management, and ultimately running a global consultancy division for a Fortune 500 software company.
Along the way, she launched several small businesses of her own. In 2012, she and her husband Glen opened a coworking space in Frederick, Maryland, In 2016 she left “corporate America” to focus on that business. She’s also a real estate investor and property manager. When not working, she loves to travel, hike, and write songs.