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Sorry, CEOs: Returning to the office won’t solve America’s loneliness epidemic, the U.S. Surgeon General says

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has used his leadership position to address mental health in the workforce—and, more specifically, the loneliness epidemic. 

He has watched loneliness persist in the workforce, in the patients he has treated, and in his own life. 

“I went through many bouts of loneliness,” Murthy said during a panel discussion at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health summit in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on Wednesday with Fortune CEO Alan Murray. “The pandemic poured fuel on a fire that was already burning. The loneliness crisis we are experiencing was there before the COVID-19 pandemic and had been building for decades.” 

Murthy, who recently published Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, has often spoken about how loneliness perpetuates negative physical and mental health outcomes. He added that beyond a public health issue, loneliness has “risen to the level of a public health crisis.” 

“Loneliness is a lot more than a bad feeling. It’s an experience that we all have from time to time, but when it’s persistent or when it’s extreme, it can actually come with significant health risks,” he said.  

Loneliness can put people at risk for heart disease, dementia, and earlier mortality. And researchers have explored how strong social connections are the cornerstone to finding happiness—above success and money. 

The return-to-office debate for loneliness

But while remote work can prohibit the spontaneous encounters with colleagues that may instill a sense of connection and belonging, Murthy said returning to the office does not solve how loneliness must be addressed in the office and at home. 

“We have to recognize there are pros and cons to being in person or fully remote. When you’re fully remote you do lose something,” he said, noting the “social cohesion” of running into a colleague on the way to a meeting or to lunch. 

Still, a full return to the office does not address the crisis wholly. While feeling connection at work positively impacts creativity, productivity, and retention, Murthy said the flexibility remote work brings allows connection in other facets of your life like with children or aging parents.  

“We also have to recognize that for some people, being able to lead remotely actually increased their interaction and time with family with loved ones,” said Murthy. 

So if companies choose the hybrid in-between solution, they still must ask how to instill social connection across their company. 

“Populations that need to be hybrid have to be more intentional in creating opportunities to build connections with one another,” he said. 

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