Loneliness and the quest to minimize the pain it causes is an inescapable fact of life, and it can be particularly pernicious at work, especially for those who hold jobs in certain professions. Dublin-based novelist Laurie Graham put it this way: “Times have changed, but there are some things that are always with us — loneliness is one of them.” Not one of us is free from the weight of that emotion, but it seems to have reached an epidemic in the United States. 54 percent of participants in an Cigna survey of 20,000 adults from across the United States said they always or sometimes feel unknownable to others. 2 in 5 said they lack companionship, feel isolated from others and think their relationships aren’t meaningful.
Loneliness and Doctors
John J. Frey III, MD, an emeritus professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reflects, in a recent essay, on the changes he’s observed in hospital and clinical settings over the last 50 years that he believes have amplified feelings of isolation and loneliness among fellow physicians. In his piece, he reminisces about doctors congregating in dining halls for lunch and snack breaks, where they built camaraderie and formed lifelong friendships and mentorships conversing about tough medical cases, politics, books, family woes and local events. Today, he says, doctors eat meals on the go or at their desks, alone, in front of computer screens. Those old timey coffee klatches are now seen as “non-productive,” he writes. Personal notes and phone calls between physicians and hospitalists, for example, have been replaced by emails.
“Health systems are trying all sorts of interventions for lonely patients,” he tells me, “and they should invest the same thing for doctors and other staff.” The costs of not implementing earnest efforts for change are high, as loneliness can compromise quality care and physicians’ well-being.
Ami Rokach, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at York University in Canada and author of Loneliness, Love and All That’s Between, agrees: “Research has shown that loneliness is related to ill health, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and psychological problems.” Rokach also warns that the lonely have a lower quality of life and higher mortality rates.
Loneliness and Lawyers
Physicians aren’t the only ones experiencing an uptick in rates of loneliness. Lawyers are the loneliest professionals among us, with 61 percent rating higher than average on U.C.L.A.’s loneliness scale. The ABA Journal, a trade magazine for lawyers, attributed it, in part, to technology allowing attorneys to do research online as opposed to in libraries, where they used to bond and banter with colleagues. Our 24/7 access to information means lawyers are working longer hours, leaving little time for social interaction.
Loneliness and Truckers
For the 1.7 million truckers in the United States technology may, in contrast, be the balm that heals feelings of isolation. On the road for weeks or months at a time, truckers are isolated from friends and family for long stretches. One woman told the New York Times that she gets so used to being alone, her social skills have deteriorated: “You forget how to communicate with people. You’re by yourself constantly.” An article on AllTrucking.com suggests truckers rely on their smartphones to participate in social media and schedule FaceTime (when they’re off the road!) with loved ones throughout the day.
A quote I’ve never forgotten from the dramatization of writers C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham’s love affair in the 1950s, Shadowlands, came from a student so obsessed with books he’d steal them from the university bookstore. “We read to know we’re not alone,” he says. For truckers commuting late into the evening or physicians and lawyers traveling home after a late night of work, downloading an engrossing audiobook might also help connect them to our common humanity.
And maybe it’s not a bad idea to learn to sit with the loneliness — even try to relish it, as much as that’s possible — as transcendental philosopher-writer Henry David Thoreau once did: “You think that I am impoverishing myself withdrawing from men,” he wrote, “but in my solitude I have woven for myself a silken web on chrysalis, and nymph-like, shall ere long burst forth a more perfect creature, fitted for higher society.”
To stave off loneliness in your own career, try these microsteps:
Keep it old school.
Make eye contact with clients in meetings, or converse by phone rather than email, when it makes sense, suggests Christopher Nutter, a former freelance journalist and owner of boutique public relations firm Nutter Media in New York City. “Personal, one-on-one communications are actually more potent than ever,” he says, because most people don’t roll that way anymore, “and it definitely alleviates the isolation that the digitization of life has caused.” Refusing to let the digital revolution overtake your life can make those moments of interpersonal connection more potent, and can sustain your feelings of connectedness.
When you feel deeply lonely, revealing a little something about your life to a co-worker, client, or even your regular barista can help bolster your feelings of connection, and remind you that, in fact, you’re not alone. Brief moments of connection like that can restore your faith that we’re all in this together.