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The Journal

Today’s Leaders Must Learn to Address a New Epidemic: Loneliness

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3 minute read

There’s a story in Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, about the tour he made across America in 2015, while he was U.S. Surgeon General. One of my colleagues at IDEO, Ann Kim, served as his Chief Design Officer and joined Dr. Murthy’s team as they set out to learn about the health crises gripping the nation—opioid addiction, chronic disease, violence—from the people who were suffering the most.

What they found through their conversations took them a bit by surprise. There was a deeper malaise afflicting everyone they spoke to—something under the surface, under the symptoms.

Loneliness.

Months into a pandemic, the isolation that’s always been below the surface is even more extreme. It was in this context that I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Murthy. We spoke about what leaders can do to facilitate connection, and why it is mission-critical for organizations to address loneliness and support relationship-building, even when we’re physically distant. Especially when we are physically distant.

I'm sharing some excerpts from our conversation here. I hope they inspire you and prompt useful explorations into the health of your communities.

Three types of loneliness

The feeling of being isolated from each other, Dr. Murthy discovered, is at the root of so many of our deepest ailments. He reminds us that we are social creatures, and that community heals us. Especially in these divided times, the way to a more happy and healthy society is both obvious and profound: human connection.

 

Connection in the workplace

Our professional lives—the experience of working and the quality of what we do—is heavily influenced by what’s going on in their rest of our lives. Yet there’s a hesitance to be vulnerable, share challenges, and ask for help. As a result, colleagues sometimes miss opportunities to help one another. It’s a loss, because through helping each other, we deepen our bonds. Empowering employees to help each other can be one of the most powerful ways for organizations to strengthen their teams.

 

The potential for something better

While our present moment lays bare how technology can isolate us and ideologies can divide us, it also shows us that new ways are possible now and in the future. My conversation with Dr. Murthy explored the role design can play in creating human-centered systems that make us all feel more connected—from the scale of individuals and teams, all the way up to systems, institutions and governments. We all have the power to design conditions that prevent loneliness, cultivate community, and foster good health.

 

The strain on our systems caused by COVID-19 reveals an opportunity to take new approaches to our work and our infrastructure— from how the government sets policies to how businesses empower employees. In rebuilding the world post-pandemic, we need to keep in mind the tangible benefits that human connection can support: mental health, physical wellbeing, academic and professional success. We can design policy to optimize human connection, ensuring our government recognizes these principles when thinking about housing, public health, or education, for instance. The question for leaders is, what changes are required to create connection and maintain cohesion, even as our structures and processes shift? The opportunity for leaders now is not to go back to how things were, but to imagine something better…and make a new “normal” built upon what supports us as, as Dr. Murthy points out, social creatures who need care and connection.

Original photograph by Meredith Nierman

  • Sandy Speicher

    CEO
    As CEO of IDEO, Sandy Speicher is constantly exploring the ways design can advance the world’s most complex systems—from education to government and beyond.
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