Former Surgeon General Talks Workplace Loneliness

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy ’98 and former executive director of Doctors for America Alice Chen addressed the adverse medical effects of loneliness at an event sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership on Monday.

The event expanded on Murthy’s recent article “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” in the Harvard Business Review, as well as Murthy and Chen’s work in developing positive workplace culture in their organizations. In that article, Murthy argues that business should strive to reduce reduce loneliness and foster connections among their employees.

At the event, Murthy emphasized the biological need for human connection and said that chronic loneliness can reduce lifespan as much as chronic smoking.

“When we are not connected with others, it actually puts us into a physiological stress state,” he said. “It can lead to higher levels of inflammation, which can damage tissues and blood vessels, and increase incidents of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a range of other illnesses.”

Beyond the physical effects of loneliness, Murthy also emphasized the importance of tackling loneliness in the workplace because of its emotional complexity among diverse groups of people.

“How do we even define loneliness? Not by having a specific number of friends,” he said. “I could have 1,000 friends and feel lonely; our world is built from people who have 1,000 Facebook friends, 1,000 Twitter followers, and feel lonely.”

At the Surgeon General’s Office, Murthy began a weekly practice called “Inside Scoop” where team members had five minutes each to share meaningful photographs from their life.

“People have a desire to be known, and to be known authentically as whole people—not just as John Doe who’s really good at quantitative analysis,” he said. “[Inside Scoop] changed how they interacted with each other.”

Chen also said coworkers should discuss love more in everyday conversation.

“Love is one of those things that people need permission to talk about, but it’s so important to all of us. It’s almost like a social norm that needs to be shifted,” she said.

Murthy agreed with Chen, adding that between the “two driving forces”—love and fear— he believed people naturally prefer a workplace centered around love.

“I can’t think of anyone who would want their son or their daughter to be fearful all the time when they go to work and make a decision,” he said. “But that is what will happen if we don’t stand up for, speak up for, and model the value of love.”

Megan J. Townsend, a graduate student studying at the Kennedy School and Medical School, said that Murthy and Chen’s discussion resonated with her personally.

“The issue of depression and loneliness among medical students and graduate students is hugely underestimated, and it was so refreshing to hear the language that they used in talking about loneliness,” Townsend said.

Administrators at the Medical School have instituted a number of reforms in recent years to open up conversations about mental health and vulnerability. In a March 2016 survey, 20 percent of third-year Medical School respondents said they had experienced suicidal or self-harming desires within the past two weeks.

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