Katie Davis spends her afternoons and evenings in therapy sessions with kids. As a clinical psychologist in private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Davis helps young patients through severe anxiety, mood disorders and other mental health challenges in order to improve their educational attainment.
She says she’s “taking on all of their struggles,” and she’s doing so without an outlet for her own stress. “I’m not allowed to talk about my patients. Everything that happens at work stays just with me,” Davis says. “Which is obviously necessary … but at the same time it’s pretty isolating, and it can be overwhelming.”
Loneliness has been called an epidemic in the United States, and it affects certain professions more severely than others. According to a recent survey by the digital workplace coaching company BetterUp:
Lawyers and doctors are the loneliest professionals — “by far.”
The research surveyed 1,624 full-time employees about their loneliness, or the “perception of being alone and isolated.” Salary didn’t seem to matter much when it came to this particular state of being: Those making $ 80,000 a year showed only about a 10 percent improvement in battling loneliness and finding social support over folks making half that much.
Instead, the key factors seem to be type of profession and level of education. In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. Occupations involving high degrees of social interaction such as social work, marketing and sales were at the opposite end of the spectrum.
It really has to do with how much of a culture of social support is in the workplace.
Andrew Reece, behavioral data scientist, BetterUp
Those with graduate degrees also experienced higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than respondents with less education. Those lonesome lawyers and doctors? They turned out to be 25 percent lonelier than respondents with bachelor’s degrees and 20 percent lonelier than Ph.D.s. “We found that it really has to do with how much of a culture of social support is in the workplace,” says Andrew Reece, a behavioral data scientist at BetterUp.
Another part of the connection between education and loneliness could be the nature of graduate school, which is best suited for introverts, according to Andrew Selepak, a telecommunications professor at the University of Florida. In his case, most of his work was done alone in front of a computer or in a library, which didn’t sit easily with his extroverted personality. “To get to the point where you become a college professor, a doctor, a lawyer, one of the occupations that might take more education,” Selepak says, “you’ve spent literally years doing work that is relatively solitary.”
As for Davis the psychologist, she anticipated the isolation of running a business. Since she works with child patients, she doesn’t have a social circle of colleagues the way she would in, say, a clinic setting. “I knew that it would be a really overwhelming and lonely experience,” she says.
At the same time, Davis likes having the power and autonomy to handle her cases and her practice as she sees fit. Those factors outweigh the negatives, and over time she has developed ways of managing her loneliness. She has a supervisor she meets about once a month for guidance, and she has joined Listserv and professional groups that organize events. Davis also landed a part-time research job so she could interact and collaborate with others in her field. This kind of workplace culture, she thinks, is powerful for increasing the sense of social connectivity among colleagues.
Like Davis, Selepak saw a solitary work environment as a given part of his career choice. He’d been prepared for it, but he knew he needed to find more ways to interact with people. He made friends with folks outside his area of expertise so he could talk with them about sports and pop culture, and he became a regular at his gym, which provided him with another, more casual social setting.
Still, BetterUp Chief Innovation Officer Gabriella Rosen Kellerman says questions continue to revolve around why loneliness is prevalent in certain careers. Now, though, employers understand that its presence in a workplace can lead to lower productivity and negatively affect a business, so they are shifting their focus to improve workplace culture, which can be difficult. Creating “shared meaning” and emphasizing why an employee’s work matters can make a big difference, Kellerman says.
“[Cultures] are historically the hardest changes to make in a workplace, and part of that is we’ve been approaching it wrong,” Kellerman says. “Each person whose behavior or thinking you want to change has to be dealt with as an individual.”