This former surgeon general says there’s a ‘loneliness epidemic’ and work is partly to blame – The Washington Post

When people think of the public health issues that have been pet priorities for surgeon generals, physical health concerns usually come to mind. Smoking. Immunizations. Obesity. Preventing the spread of the AIDS virus. But Vivek H. Murthy, who became the U.S. surgeon general in late 2014 after a lengthy confirmation battle over his remarks about guns being a health-care issue, added emotional well-being and loneliness to his list of big public health worries.

Now he’s writing about the impact the  has on those issues, taking his concerns to employers and speaking out about how the “loneliness epidemic” plays out on the job. In a new cover story in the , Murthy treats loneliness like a public health crisis, and the workplace as one of the primary places where it can get better — or worse. “Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time,” Murthy said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That includes the workplace.”

In the HBR article, Murthy writes that “we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” The Post spoke with Murthy about what leaders can do, why he calls it an “epidemic,” and why he didn’t focus more on employees being overworked in his essay. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to take this on as an issue?

When I began my tenure as surgeon general I did not think that I would be talking about loneliness and emotional well-being. But when I was traveling to communities across the country I found that loneliness was a profound issue that was affecting people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is true in urban areas, in rural areas, in the heartland of the country and on the coast.

As somebody who trained as a doctor, I also found that in medicine we get very little guidance on how to approach emotional well-being. We don’t often screen patients for loneliness. And many clinicians aren’t clear about the strong connection between loneliness and the very health problems we are trying to address, often with medications and procedures.

When you look at the data, what’s really interesting is loneliness has been found to be associated with a reduction of life span. The reduction in life span [for loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact on life span of obesity. So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia. And if you look at the workplace, you’ll also find it’s associated with reductions in task performance. It limits creativity. It impairs other aspects of executive function, such as decision-making.

 

When people think of the public health issues that have been pet priorities for surgeon generals, physical health concerns usually come to mind. Smoking. Immunizations. Obesity. Preventing the spread of the AIDS virus. But Vivek H. Murthy, who became the U.S. surgeon general in late 2014 after a lengthy confirmation battle over his remarks about guns being a health-care issue, added emotional well-being and loneliness to his list of big public health worries.

 

 

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