Axios recently reported on the state of loneliness in the US. Included were some astounding stats. A Harvard study found that 1 in 3 Americans feel “serious loneliness”–including 61% of younger people and over 50% of mothers with young kids. It cites a recent CDC survey in which 63% of young adults were found to be suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression, attributed at least in part to loneliness. About half of lonely young adults reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”
Why does loneliness matter? “The human brain, having evolved to seek safety in numbers, registers loneliness as a threat,” the New York Times’ John Leland writes, while noting that this epidemic of loneliness predates Covid. Constant exposure to those feelings has profound consequences. Research has linked loneliness to both mental health conditions, such as depression and dementia, and physical ailments like high blood pressure and obesity. One analysis compares the health effect of feeling lonely to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“Greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death,” according to an analysis of 148 studies discussed the American Psychological Association. But even those with seemingly robust social lives can be quite lonely, depending on the quality of their relationships, experts say.
And what does this have to do with lawyers? A survey reported in the Harvard Business Review before the pandemic found that lawyers are the loneliest of all professionals., with that feeling likely driving at least in part the scourges of addiction, depression, stress, burnout and relationship turmoil found in lawyer populations.
Personality may play a part. Lawyers are overwhelmingly introverts. Introverts often require more solitude for “recharging.” Add that to a heavy workload that values independence and perfection and there may be little time to build meaningful relationships. Also, lawyers rarely know how to practice self-care. Those serving at-risk and traumatized populations often don’t know how to deal with the emotions they hear of and often take on themselves. This vicarious trauma can lead some, motivated by a concern about burdening others, to keep their struggles to themselves, thereby creating even more distance between them and their sources of support.
Employers have the specter of their lawyers not only in precarious health but also dispensing legal advice while in a debilitated state. Liability on a number of fronts raises its ugly head, as well as the costs and difficulty of replacing burnt-out workers.
What can be done? Reconnecting with family and friends can help lonely lawyers. Employers and supervisors should take the time to regularly check in with their charges. Although calling isn’t enough, says Maninder Kahlon, a professor at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, who in a recent study examined loneliness and the effect of phone calls. “Don’t talk. Ask questions; let them talk. People feel good and connected when what they have to offer is seen as valuable and interesting.”
Meditation has been shown to be incredibly helpful to reduce stress and to work more effectively. Meditating even for short sessions teaches the mind to be attentive to the present and not dwell on the past or project into the future and can be done anywhere, at any time. University of California, Los Angeles, researchers found that an eight-week meditation program reduced loneliness in older adults and also altered the genes and protein markers of inflammation.
Therapy of all sorts can help lawyers identify their feelings and strategize about how to improve them. A few firms in the past have had a phycologist come to their offices on a regular basis to meet with anyone who wanted to. The problem is the stigma that is still associated with lawyers seeking help. A more promising development is the availability of therapy and life skills coaching via virtual appointments that are made and conducted confidentially. In one case, a firm leader reported to me that in their six-month trial of the service, their lawyers went through the allotted time in less than two months and one lawyer said she would have committed suicide if it hadn’t been for the assistance.
Given the extraordinary pressures that lawyers labor under and the value of a healthy professional, isn’t it time to make sure lawyers are supported with easily accessible mental healthcare?