Humans are hard-wired to connect - we are tribal and social animals. We are biologically programmed to need other humans, and a feeling of belonging and connection drives our happiness. Despite this many of us will know what it’s like to be lonely, especially after living through two years of reduced social interaction.
Loneliness arises from either a lack of social relationships or a lack of close emotional bonds with those we have relationships with. It can occur because we work from home and don’t interact with colleagues often or have the time to pursue a social connection, we live alone and rarely see others, or it may be that we just don’t have the quality of connection in our everyday lives, we don’t have people we feel close to or share values with. Connection exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued, when they can give and receive without judgement and when they derive sustenance and strength from that relationship.
Many lawyers have contacted LawCare feeling disconnected from work, their teams and their manager. Although increased use of technology has brought people virtually closer, it has reduced the opportunities for face-to-face communication and instilled a sense of psychological loneliness. No screen interaction can ever equal the connections made in real time and space.
Whilst it is normal to occasionally feel lonely, long-term loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and increased stress. People with strong social relationships are 50 percent less likely to die prematurely than those with weak social relationships.
As Professor Brene Brown says “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We may think we want money, power, fame, beauty, eternal youth or a new car, but at the root of most of these desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others and to be loved”.
Loneliness in the workplace
Most of us spend more time working than doing anything else, particularly in the legal profession where long hours are endemic allowing little time for family and friends. If you are lonely at work and feel isolated from others either physically or emotionally it can adversely affect job performance, job satisfaction, creativity and work engagement. You are more likely to be off work regularly, to leave for another job, and it may also lead to problems at home. If someone is lonely at work it can also negatively affect their colleagues and the organisation as a whole. Loneliness cost UK businesses an estimated £2.5 billion each year pre-pandemic. Research conducted by Gallup the consulting firm found that employees with close and best friends in the workplace are more engaged in work, which results in high-quality work and greater employee well-being.
Who is most at risk of loneliness?
Men are often lonelier than women. A report from Cigna insurance company in the US revealed that nearly two-thirds of men (63%) felt lonelier when compared to women as men were more likely to spend time socialising with colleagues but tended to hide their true selves at work which made them feel lonely. Men have been found to be more reluctant admitting being lonely than women due to the social stigma associated with it in some cultures.
Entry-level employees and senior executives were found to be the loneliest. Leaders such as Tim Cook the CEO at Apple reported feeling lonely despite being surrounded by thousands of employees.
What employers can do
- Check in regularly. Managers should check in regularly, little and often works best, and informal chats are as important as work conversations. Ask how people are and how they are managing their workload. Make sure employees are looking after themselves. Ask them about their lives outside of work. In our Life in the Law research into legal workplaces wellbeing we discovered that of a wide range of workplace measures available, from private health insurance to mental health training, regular catch-ups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful.
- Pay attention to vulnerable groups. Juniors will often need more support, and are less likely to have a comfortable home working set-up, with those in flat shares or living with their parents often having to work from their bedroom.
- Build a culture of connection and community. Look for meaningful ways to increase connection/interaction at work and meet employees’ psychological needs of social exchange. Brainstorms, informal tea-breaks, weekly catch ups, team days, peer support/mentoring programmes can all be useful here.
- Encourage people back to the workplace. Incentivise and encourage people to spend at least some time in the workplace interacting with others, even if the majority of their work is carried out at home.
- Ensure a work/life balance is possible. Encourage everyone to work sensible hours – staff will take cues from how leaders behave. Take full lunch breaks; rest and recuperate after busy periods; avoid working at weekends; take annual leave entitlement. Make sure teams are well resourced in order to make this happen.
If you are feeling lonely, LawCare can help. We’ve been providing emotional support to legal professionals, support staff and concerned family members for 25 years. You can call our confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or access online chat and other resources at www.lawcare.org.uk We offer free peer support to those working in the law via our network of around 90 peer supporters, all of whom work in or have worked in the law.