Mental Health Awareness week is a reminder for each of us to review the roles we play in supporting good mental health, be it as parents, friends, colleagues, or employers. The focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is loneliness, a phenomenon which has an outsized impact on our physical and mental health – as recently highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our connections to communities and other people are fundamental to supporting good metal health, and reducing chronic or long-term loneliness is a major step towards a mentally healthy society.
Whilst it is by no means unique in this respect, the legal sector can, if left unchecked, give rise to prime breeding conditions for loneliness – the work type is often best suited to individual rather than team-based activities, the hours can be long and (if we’re honest!) the personalities it attracts can be more prone to loneliness than on average. As such it is important to recognise the risk and take proactive steps to mitigate it.
Most people will have experienced loneliness at some point in their life – it is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want1. While some amount of loneliness is a normal part of everyday life, if it becomes embedded for a long period, loneliness can have a serious effect on our wellbeing, resulting in a potentially vicious cycle of loneliness and poor mental health. Studies by the Mental Health Foundation2 show that being connected to other people in a way that helps us feel valued is fundamental to protecting our mental health. Further, loneliness is one of the key indicators of poor mental health and long-term feelings of loneliness have been shown to be associated with higher rates of mortality and poorer physical health outcomes3. The point at which the balance tips is hard to define due to the subjective nature of loneliness and the variation in needs of different people.
Relationships with our colleagues which we build and maintain in the workplace are vital, particularly in an age where the boundaries between home and work are increasingly blurred. Good workplace relationships may assist in fulfilling some social needs, as well as helping productivity at work and having an important role in job satisfaction. Having positive relationships throughout life has been shown to have the greatest impact on life satisfaction and health4.
However, many in the legal profession have traits which may hinder these relationships and the benefits they provide. Whilst you will likely be able to think of some exceptions to prove the rule, on the whole, lawyers are likely to score low in the trait of sociability5, the desire to interact with people – particularly when it comes to their comfort level in initiating new connections with others. People who score low in this trait are not necessarily anti-social, they are merely more likely to rely on relationships which they have already formed. Lawyers are also likely to score high in the traits of scepticism and autonomy – and while these traits are often key to someone being good at their job, they ultimately can undercut important inter-personal relationships and result in people feeling isolated and lonely.
Being aware of these common traits in the workplace is an important first step. For many lawyers, loneliness can stem from an assumption that their colleagues are not interested in helping them out. When in fact, most people are more than willing to provide support where required. The legal profession need not be a lonely profession, as much of what people experience is self-imposed rather than inherent to the profession itself. However, overcoming this requires collective action to encourage individuals to reach out to one another and connect.
Many organisations, including GJE, have wellbeing strategies, mental health first aiders, emergency helplines and accessible counselling services, all of which can help combat loneliness. We also encourage collaborative working, not competition. At the end of the day, though, it’s the little things that perhaps count the most – a quick chat just to see how a colleague is doing and lending a friendly, non-judgmental ear if and when needed. Our belief is that having a prominent, firm-wide wellness strategy reinforces the importance of these little things and not only leads to people feeling better supported but also helps to break down the barriers that prevent individuals seeking help when they do need it.
1 Why Loneliness is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022
2 Mental Health Foundation (May 2016) Relationships in the 21st Century. London: Mental Health Foundation
3 Hold-Lunstad, Julianne. “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review”, July 2010
4 Vaillant, George E.; McArthur, Charles C.; Bock, Arlie, 2022, “Grant Study of Adult Development, 1938-2000
5 Report to Legal Management: Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed