Social Isolation in Work-Obsessed America

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                 A friend and I recently discussed the isolation that can come from being too ensconced in work. He ought to know, having been an excellent student and worker who is now struggling socially. This isolation—and, more specifically, the depression and profound sense of disconnect from others it can cause—is a growing problem that deserves more attention.

Aiding and abetting this problem is, of course, the relatively recent ability to do so much of our work remotely. One might not need to speak to another for days at a time except over email. While sometimes much more convenient and less stressful that genuine interaction, the isolation afforded by our technology can ultimately harm us. The wonders of the digital age can reinforce the sense of social isolation and give the less social opportunities to avoid interaction which previous generations did not possess.

This sort of estrangement has very real consequences for the work-obsessed. Nature has a wicked sense of irony: Workers cutting corners in their social lives in order to squeeze out a few more hours of productivity are harming only themselves and their output rate in the long term. The sacrifice of strong social bonds in the name of work can end up sabotaging the very energy and dynamism upon which the workaholic thrives.

Not surprisingly, mounting research suggests such loss of energy and fulfilment can be traced to the depression triggered by social isolation. It is a fundamental truth that humans are meant to be social creatures, biologically hardwired by evolution to seek companionship and interdependence. When the fragile bonds of the social system are broken—as they can be when neglected for too long—isolation occurs and depression can easily set in, creeping in like a thief in the night.

The workaholic—having had the source of his energy undermined by the depression caused by social isolation—finds there are few close friends to turn to, thus reinforcing the sense of loneliness. From the outside, this can seem like karma; in reality, it’s the predictable consequence of letting those social bonds lapse like a bridge neglected for too long.

Fortunately, the cure is straight forward, if not always easy or quick. If you’re putting work ahead of meaningful relationships. Coming to grips with workaholism is necessary. Like any addiction, the exploration of why the behavior is so rewarding for you—and exploring why it’s more emotionally comfortable to live in the grip of a consuming activity than engaging in genuine interaction with others—is a crucial step.

The key word here is engage. Engage in a rigorous self-examination with qualified psychotherapist, and begin arming yourself with the emotional tools to begin engaging with the world once again. Make no mistake: Replacing the addiction of work and achievement with the warmth of interaction and mutual dependence can be difficult, frightening, and sometimes messy. But it is well worth the effort. Live as you were meant to live—with and for others.

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