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Only the lonely

07 Feb 2020 / Wellbeing Print

Only the lonely

There is a great deal to be gained from a variety of peer support structures that can help reduce professional loneliness and isolation.

Professional loneliness, as a concept, may be unfamiliar, but it can be a particular issue in the legal profession. Solicitors and barristers are seen by society as intelligent, confident, capable, and logical people.

When members of the profession are feeling vulnerable or are concerned about their competence, it can be difficult to talk about because of these societal expectations and the stigma attached.

In addition, there may be concerns about confidentiality and the impact of gossip on potential business for the individuals concerned. This can be acutely felt in rural settings.

Stressful workplaces and interpersonal environments can further compound the problem. In a survey commissioned in 2018 by the Law Society, 26% of respondents described their work environments as having a negative culture or as being toxic.

Consider and reflect

As you read, I would like to invite you to consider and reflect on your professional relationships – what drains and sustains you in relation to them; the times when you have felt professionally isolated and those times where you felt more of a sense of connection and belonging in your workplace and with your colleagues.

Were you dreading returning to work after the Christmas break or were you able to connect to some enthusiasm about your workplace, either the job or the people?

Can you begin to think of ways in which you can become more connected to work colleagues and increase your sense of common purpose and belonging in your workplace?

While there seems little controversy about the fact that our need to belong is one of our most basic needs as humans, there still seems to be a great deal of stigma connected to talking about loneliness or professional isolation – the description often conjures up images of someone who is unlikable, boring, or in some other way unappealing.

Epidemic

However, loneliness, overall, is on the increase in society, with some media reports suggesting that it has even reached epidemic proportions.

There is an increasing appreciation of the importance of our social contexts in relation to our overall psychological wellbeing. It is from our web of our connections and relationships with other people that we draw our happiness, strength and resilience.

Relationships are key to how we feel and how we manage in our lives, but we do not always nurture them in a way that matches their importance for our overall mental health and wellbeing. 

Connection

Loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. We have all experienced the worst type of loneliness: feeling isolated and detached when you are with a group of people you know such as friends, family or colleagues.

So it is not just individuals who work on their own who are at risk of professional loneliness, it is also easy to feel isolated in a large firm if the environment is not conducive to making meaningful connections to your colleagues or to the work that you are doing.

Professional loneliness is a growing problem in an age where remote working and technology can take the place of human connection. Social media and business magazines are filled with advice about ways in which lone workers can hold onto social connections and social interaction as work environments become more isolating.

Belonging

However, in terms of professional belonging, the research points to our need for a deeper form of engagement than birthday cakes or after-work drinks with colleagues. In fact, a sense of shared meaning and values has been found to be more important than simple social interaction between colleagues.

So, although having a coffee or lunch with someone can help tackle professional loneliness, it is also important to connect with the tasks you are involved in, your immediate colleagues, your firm and your profession as a whole. In particular, sharing the same values with them can help you anchor yourself, nourish you and help you feel connected.

Physical health

Loneliness has also been shown to have a significant impact on physical health. A recent study showed loneliness as contributing to increases in poor sleeping, alcohol use and high blood pressure. From examining 70 experimental studies, the authors concluded that the combined impact of social isolation and loneliness significantly increases the likelihood of dying young.

In the 2018 study commissioned by the Law Society, it was concluded that there is a significant problem in the profession in relation to overall wellbeing. While this survey did not ask specifically about professional loneliness, sole practitioners were found to have particularly high levels of stress, as did women and solicitors in the first five years of their careers.

The study also pointed to the very low uptake of the current supports available, with concerns about confidentiality and stigma being cited as potential barriers to seeking help. It concluded that peer support was an untapped resource in the profession and made recommendations that the potential for peer support models be investigated.

Peer support

The underlying principle of any model of peer support is that people who have similar experiences of something come together to support each other. It works through the development of meaningful reciprocal relationships, based on both giving and receiving support.

It can take a variety of forms, but is always based on the idea of mutual empathy and the benefit for all parties from the relationship and the exchange.

Peer support can take a number of forms and is often used within mental health services. The Law Society is currently organising a pilot professional wellbeing peer support model that, if successful, will be rolled out in different areas across the country. It aims to help Society members build a sense of community and belonging in the profession.

Lean on me

For the purposes of this brief article, I have distinguished between the different functions that a peer support model could provide for individuals at different points in time. While waiting for the professional wellbeing peer support model to reach your area, this might be useful for you and your peers to reflect on when considering how to support each other in 2020:

  • Every-day peer support: this involves paying attention to your daily interactions with your peers and colleagues, noticing the impact your interactions have on them and positively connoting them if their interactions towards you feel good.
  • Resilience boosting peer support: this requires a deeper level of noticing about yourself and others. Are you feeling stressed or more vulnerable than usual? Is the person on the next desk to you quieter or grumpier than usual? You have the opportunity here to model both asking and receiving support from your peers to boost your overall wellbeing. It is not even important to talk in detail about whatever it is that is stressing you or them. This kind of peer support is more about demonstrating collegiality and promoting positive relationships. Although it might feel a bit tokenistic to suggest a coffee or a quick chat, these small acts of kindness really do make a difference and can change culture over time.
  • Restorative peer support: this type of support is generally offered and received from colleagues who have more of a personal relationship. It might include a team, or part of a team, going out together after work, and generally happens when there is has been a period or event of particular stress or importance in the team. While this type of support is often social, there is also a lot to be said for a more formal processes, for example, facilitated reflective practice groups or conversations. Reflective practice is the process of reflecting on experience in a way that deepens learning and skill development at both a personal and professional level. A reflective practitioner is someone who is self-aware and critically reflects on practice and theory as a self-directed lifelong learner, reflects collectively and in community, and takes action to improve his or her practice.
  • Specific issue peer support: this type of peer support is most useful when you need to discuss a stressful issue or case in more depth with an experienced peer and expert. It might be to do with a particular case that is weighing heavily on you, either because of the content or due to personal resonances. Having someone to talk through the details of such an issue in a confidential setting can be exceptionally helpful. This type of peer support can take place in an individual or group setting and may also be helpful for individuals who have other contributing stressors, such as financial concerns, that would be helpful to talk about within a confidential peer support relationship.

In summary, there is a great deal to be gained from a variety of peer support structures to help to reduce professional loneliness and isolation. It is important to state that such supports do not take away from the requirement for high-quality confidential clinical supports, such as individual psychotherapy, for members of the profession who may well be experiencing high levels of psychological distress and/or mental health difficulties.

‘Under construction’

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that every member of a profession or organisation has a part to play in constructing an inclusive culture through our interactions and conversations over time. Organisations and professions are always ‘under construction’ through the interactions that occur between the people within it.

Obviously, some individual members have more power than others, but we all have a potential role in influencing the culture through our actions and interactions.

Talking the talk

The way we talk to each other, the way we include others in conversations or interactions and the way we offer and ask for support all have an impact on the culture that we create together. To cite a well-known phrase from John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

So, be kind to yourselves and to each other.

If you are interested in learning more about wellbeing and mental health for the legal profession, please join us for ‘The Business of Wellbeing Summit’ at the Law Society on 23 April from 9.30am - 4.15pm. Information on speakers, topics and CPD hours can be found at www.lawsociety.ie, or contact a member of the team at FinuasSkillnet@lawsociety.ie.

Dr Grania Clarke
Dr Grania Clarke is a clinical and counselling psychologist, and family systemic psychotherapist and supervisor