Managing professional loneliness – strategies for lawyers and leaders

Loneliness in the workplace

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year the focus is on loneliness. It affects millions of people across the UK and has been exacerbated by the lockdowns and changes in working habits of the C-19 pandemic. And whilst certain groups, such as students and the elderly, are at particular risk, it can also be a professional issue.

What is loneliness and why does it matter?

The UK government’s Psychology of Loneliness report, published in July 2020, defines loneliness as “When the social connections people want don’t match their actual experience of relationships with others”. Whilst everyone feels lonely at times, and it is not a mental health condition on its own, chronic feelings of loneliness can impact on our mental health, leading to anxiety, depression or distress. Likewise, mental health conditions can make people feel more lonely, leading to a negative spiral of emotions.

In a professional context, loneliness can lead to burnout, to feeling less productive and to feeling less engaged with the organisation you’re working with, which can all impact on your performance and long-term success.

“I look back now that my children are older and I wonder about all the hours that I missed when they were young.”

How can you protect yourself from professional loneliness?

Lawyers, either freelance or within an organisation, can be particularly at risk of loneliness in the workplace. As a freelance consultant, you are by definition not part of the established teams you are working with. As a permanent in-house lawyer, you may be a sole lawyer or part of a small team, and not be included in some of the wider networks that link the commercial or operations functions. You may even find yourself working on sensitive projects or transactions that mean you don’t have much exposure to the wider organisation. The rise of hybrid working and 100% remote roles can also remove opportunities for connection.

From our experience at Obelisk, there are three areas you can focus on that can help prevent loneliness becoming a problem:

#1 Be proactive with your communication and collaboration

Don’t wait to be invited to calls and meetings, rather learn from successful freelance lawyers and proactively create opportunities to connect. Be curious about the organisation you’re working with and identify people that you want to get to know or that you’ll need to work closely with, then ask for introductions or email them to suggest a call (or a coffee). Sharing useful information, finding ways to get work done faster or making better decisions together are all ways to show the value of collaboration.

#2 Look after your own mental wellbeing

We’ve spoken before about tools such as meditation or mindfulness to you look after your wellbeing. Investing some time in setting up a positive mental outlook on your day can help you to feel more energised and productive.

#3 Creating opportunities to connect outside work

If you have a strong extrovert personality and thrive on interaction with others, find different ways to bring this into your life. This might be building time into your day for networking, an interest outside of work or even the school run! Alternatively, find ways to structure your working day so that you build in extra human contact:

  • Work in a coffee shop or workspace if you don’t have calls (make sure you’re working on a secure internet connection)
  • Find a work-at-home buddy who lives nearby and take it in turns to host each other
  • Set up a Zoom call with a colleague and leave it open while you work so you can chat or check in with each other.

If you feel that your loneliness is severe, get help. LawCare advisors are or you can tap into services such as Samaritans or Mind.

“No-one wants to say it but this industry doesn’t see you the same once you get to 50.”

How can you help those around you?

If you’re working with a team in a senior role, there are ways you can structure your work and your teams to help prevent loneliness.

#1 Look out for potential loneliness triggers

If someone is new to your organisation or new to a role, they may be particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Take the time to help them start the working relationships they need and make introductions. Invite them to meetings and social events when you can. Build in extra time to check in with them. Find more onboarding tips here.

#2 Make sure your communications are “remote first”

A large part of professional loneliness can be feeling excluded from important information or decisions. With hybrid working becoming the norm for many in the legal industry, it’s important to make sure you adapt your communication style so that no-one misses out due to not being in the office. Ensure that core team meetings are held on video conference for all, send regular written or video updates to your whole team and set up online social time as well as focusing on work – just five minutes at the start of a call for an informal chat can make a difference.

#3 Role-model good self-care, and looking after each other

Show your team that you look after yourself, and them, by being open about how you protect your own mental wellbeing and by taking the time to check in with others. Encourage your team to experiment with different tips and techniques for busting loneliness and to share ideas that work. Loneliness can be a very individual experience, so make room for as much flexibility as you can rather than taking a one size fits all approach.

Getting extra help

If you feel you need extra support, LawCare is a charity providing support and advice to all in the legal profession.

With over 90 peer advisors available, who have all worked in the law previously, they are here for you. Learn more on how peer support can help you, or becoming a peer supporter.

Support helpline: 0800 279 6888

Email support: [email protected]

Online chat and other resources:

About the LawCare’s peer support

Peer supporter’s at LawCare offer support, encouragement and mentoring, usually over two to three phone calls, but it can be less or more than this. Issues they can help with include: worries about training, difficult relationships at work, career progression, facing disciplinary, workload and more.

Hear how peer supports Jade Williams-Adedeji and Steven Clarke are helping those working in the legal profession.

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