Combatting ‘professional loneliness’

By Gemma Pettman Chart.PR

The internet is currently flooded with statistics about loneliness due, in part, to its being the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

One of the most striking stats comes from the Mental Health Foundation which reports one in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time. This is worrying and I certainly don’t want to diminish the mental and physical health impact of being isolated, but I find it reassuring to know that feelings of loneliness are quite common.

For me, loneliness is something I have experienced far more in my professional life than in my personal life (if there is even a divide between the two). The Mental Health Foundation statistic and, closer to home, the CIPR’s #PRinAPandemic report suggest that I’m not alone.

The CIPR’s report revealed practitioners were five times more likely to say that their mental health had deteriorated (during 2020/21) than improved. Is it a stretch to link this deterioration to loneliness? Possibly. But given the impact of the pandemic, the dramatically increased workload many comms pros faced as a result, and the effects of (in some cases, quickly hashed-together) remote working during uncertain times, it’s perhaps not an unreasonable connection to make.

One practitioner, Rob, told me he went from working in a busy office to spending long days in his spare room. A sense of isolation came over him very quickly: “I know I’m lucky I even have a spare room, but really, it wasn’t ideal,” Rob said. “I soon felt out of the loop and missed the corridor chats and interactions with my colleagues.”

Others started new jobs during the pandemic. One senior practitioner told me: “I have taken a much bigger communications leadership role in the last year, and I now understand the phrase 'it's lonely at the top'! When your colleagues look to you for guidance and direction, you can't confess your worries.

“I'm very happy to be honest about not knowing the answer, wanting to hear from them about the communications solution, but there is no one to hear your anxieties and give you reassurance that you're heading in the right direction.”

What about independent practitioners? Like me, Samantha has been self-employed for a long time. She has several different clients but mostly works alone and remotely. Even those of us used to spending lots of time on our own aren’t immune to feelings of isolation.

Samantha said: “Working as an independent consultant can be lonely, either totally working on your own with no back-up or if you are working as part of an in-house team you are always the outsider, even if they are the best team going. 

“It can get very lonely, even when you are surrounded by people.”

So how to tackle what I call ‘professional loneliness’. I shared some of the things I have done to combat it in this LinkedIn post. One of my suggestions was to find a network, such as the CIPR. The members I spoke to for this blog agreed.

The senior practitioner with the new job said: “Being part of a professional network like the CIPR Not-for-Profit Group has meant that I can find professional peers outside of my workplace and who have faced similar challenges. It doesn't need to be an ongoing mentoring relationship, just spending time hearing about similar challenges (like how they've managed stakeholders or supported a team through change) has helped me feel less lonely.”

For Rob, remote work became progressively harder to manage and he considered calling the iprovision mental health hotline. The confidential line is provided by Health Assured and is run by qualified and experienced counsellors who operate within the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy's (BACP) framework.

In the end, he spoke to his supervisor about his concerns but said “just knowing there was potentially help on the end of the phone was reassuring.”

As an active volunteer and regular event attendee, Samantha has found her professional network has been positive for her personal life too. “To have people who understand the work issues, I decided to become more involved in the CIPR,” she said. “I’d been a member for a while, but never joined in, just sat on the sidelines. Wow, what a difference it made when I took the first steps to become involved. I felt I belonged. 

“For so long I’d complained about going to networking events and not knowing anyone. During the pandemic the Zoom meetings with the groups was definitely a highlight. Now I regularly attend the area networking events. I see the same faces, who I’ve gradually got to know, and I hope I could even say some are now friends.”

If loneliness is something you’re experiencing, take it from us, you’re not on your own. As a member of the CIPR there are various resources you can access from the mental health hotline to the wellbeing portal. You can also consider volunteering or attending group events to build your network.

There’s more on the CIPR’s wellbeing resources here and for more general information on loneliness and mental health, we suggest visiting the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week page.

Gemma Pettman is a Chartered PR practitioner and member of the CIPR’s Not-for-Profit committee.