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Lonely lawyers

14 Apr 2021 / Wellbeing Print

Lonely are the brave

In an American study into loneliness, lawyers came out on top as the loneliest profession. Does this surprise you? Andy Nazer investigates.

Lawyers are generally seen by society as intellectual, confident, reliable, capable, and logical people. When they are feeling vulnerable or worried, it can be difficult to open up and talk because of these societal expectations.

There may also be concerns about confidentiality and the effect of gossip on potential business. Stressful workplaces and interpersonal environments can further compound the problem. This all sounds very lonely.

I asked a young solicitor about her working life during the pandemic, and this is what she shared: “I flat-share and so simply finding my own space to work that was quiet and sympathetic wasn’t easy! Outside this issue, my days are filled with Zoom meetings with clients and colleagues, phone calls, online research, document review, preparing cases, strategising, etc.

“The role requires you to constantly present yourself in the best possible light, accept disappointment (losing a case, confronting errors), maintaining client confidentiality, suppressing your emotions, and having to present as strong when inside you are feeling vulnerable.”

I am sure some of you can add to this list of issues. You may also be experiencing financial pressures, practice politics, soaring pressures on your private life, or you may be worried for your career. Is it any wonder then that words like ‘burnout’, ‘isolation’ and ‘loneliness’ are regularly appearing in our media at the moment?

Empty rooms

Loneliness can be relentless and become the centre of a person’s life. It’s difficult to talk about. It’s difficult, sometimes, even to talk about talking about it.

Loneliness is different for each of us. It can be social, where you lack a wider network; emotional, where you miss an individual or group of people; or existential, where you find it difficult to connect with others and feel separated from society. For me, it is the cavity between the social connections in my life and the connections I would like.

For many, loneliness is transient – it comes and goes throughout our lives. It can be situational or chronic – occurring at a certain time of the week/month/year or overwhelming and long-lasting. It does not discriminate and can strike anyone at any time.

It affects the young, the old. and those in between. In normal times, some sections of society are more vulnerable to loneliness, but the pandemic has largely changed that. Now anyone can experience loneliness.

It can be personal and painful and often enters unannounced and unnoticed. There are numerous causes of loneliness, but lower levels of human contact and connection, a reduction of informal and formal support, unshared grief, and increasing social anxiety are significant contributing factors.

As social animals, we have an innate desire to belong.

We don’t always experience this consciously, but it resides deep within us. In the past, we lived in tribes. Today, our ‘tribe’ is often our immediate family or work colleagues. Belonging is personal.

People often describe it as feeling ‘socially connected’ or being part of a ‘community’ where they feel secure. Since March 2020, much of this has been missing from our lives.

Unfortunately, most of us keep quiet about loneliness because there are misconceptions of loneliness as a personal failing, or as only affecting older people and or the introverted.

The increasing dialogue taking place around loneliness, however, is changing this. Press articles, and hopefully readers like you, will help break the stigma associated with loneliness.

I’ll be there for you

If you are experiencing loneliness, know that you are not alone. According to the Central Statistic Office’s most recent research on wellbeing (February 2021), over 26% of individuals surveyed felt lonely ‘all or most of the time’ in the four-week period prior to being interviewed.

Interestingly, female respondents were nearly twice as likely to report such feelings compared with men (17% female; 9.2% male) and respondents living in rented accommodation were twice as likely to report feeling lonely ‘all or most of the time’ than those in owner-occupied dwellings (22.2% v 10.3%).

In addition, 41.7% of respondents rated their overall life satisfaction as ‘low’ right now. This is the highest rating for ‘low’ overall life satisfaction captured in CSO surveys to date. In 2013, when many households were suffering the effects of the 2007 financial crisis, this rate was 15.3% and it dropped to 8.7% in 2018, when the economy was growing strongly.

Only the lonely

While loneliness and grief are two separate concepts, grief often opens the door to loneliness. The collective grief we are experiencing in the pandemic is similar to that associated with chronic loneliness.

We share the grief for thousands of lives lost, the loss of connection with the people we care about, and the loss of the life we once had. For some, this includes the loss of employment, opportunities, dreams, relationships, our daily routines, and meeting friends and family.

It may be compounded by a sense of losing one’s identity – who am I anymore, without all of these activities, relationships and routines that previously shaped my life?

Over the coming months and years, as we navigate towards a ‘different life’, we will process the grief we have accumulated and try to free ourselves from the burden of loss, disconnection, and loneliness.

Many of us may find this will take a period of adaption. We may still feel disconnected, disorientated, and emotionally absent from society, but find ourselves physically back in our communities and workplaces.

When this transition happens, it will be important to identify how we feel, grow more accepting towards ourselves, and offer kindness and gentleness to ourselves and each other. Minding each other, with tenderness, we can regain positive connections and a sense of belonging to help us process our experience.

A million miles away

Loneliness and social isolation can cause harm to our physical and psychological wellbeing. Like smoking and obesity, there is evidence that chronic loneliness shortens lives. For most, it diminishes the quality of life and work.

Experiencing poor social connections and loneliness within the workplace can impair your executive function. It reduces task performance and blights your powers of reasoning, efficiency, planning, emotional regulation, analysis, abstract thinking, and accurate decision-making.

It affects productivity and results in increased sickness levels and reduced staff retention within workplaces. Within a legal context, it has been reported anecdotally that loneliness affects how we focus on tasks, communicate with clients, and make deadlines.

Lonely professionals have also told me that it affects their mood, stress levels, self-esteem, sleep habits and relationships at work and home.

Accepting you are lonely is a good place to start. Approximately one in four of us is experiencing loneliness, so you are not alone and there should be no stigma associated with seeking out greater connection. It is a feeling we all share and have at different times in our life. Identifying the causes is a first step to building a pathway back to better connection.

Having a sense of belonging is fundamental to building resilience against loneliness. Maybe we can all learn from this pandemic about what type of connections and what extent of connections we want in the future.

Ask yourself: what type of connection do I need, who do I want to connect with, who would I like in ‘my tribe’, and how can I strengthen or rebuild my community moving forward?

Waiting on a friend

Listen to the loneliness. What is it telling you? Loneliness can be a reminder that we need something. There will be elements of your life you can’t control, so ask yourself what you can control and what you can do to fill this need.

Then make the effort to do so. A good place to start is by increasing the number of daily contacts with other people. Say a simple ‘hello’ to the neighbours, the supermarket cashier, or the barista. Remember, these authentic, warm moments of connection really count and can be very nourishing, even though low-key.

The final but possibly most significant action you or your practice could take is to celebrate and encourage acts of kindness. Kindness, consideration, and empathy in the workplace create a ripple effect throughout the organisation.

You might start with being warmer and kinder to yourself first, giving yourself a break and noticing when the critical inner voice creeps in. If we are kind to ourselves, it is easier for us to be more compassionate, concerned, and empathetic to others.

Before loneliness becomes overwhelming, speak to a professional counsellor or your doctor. It’s important to recognise that you are not alone and, just like the pandemic, most people’s loneliness will pass.

You might want to find out more about LegalMind, the independent and confidential mental health support that is available to Law Society members and their dependants at any time of the day or night. If you wish to speak to a mental-health professional today, you can call LegalMind on 1800 81 41 77 for in-the-moment support

LOOK IT UP

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Andy Nazer
Andy Nazer formerly led a variety of projects at the Campaign to End Loneliness