This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. By using our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy

Lexis+ AI
Quotation Marks
the less we meet each other in person, the more we’re in danger of withdrawing

Facing the camera: Emotional lockdown

Facing the camera: Emotional lockdown


Virtual isolation is enforced by being unable to send or receive visual signals from others, explains Alicia Fortinberry

Covid-19 has greatly exacerbated trends such as isolation, stress and mental health issues. In many ways, this is especially true of lawyers given the intensity of legal business and the impact on our home lives; and the fact that we are already more vulnerable than other professions in some areas. 

Lawyers are more prone to isolation, depression and anxiety than most other professionals. They are trained to look for the negative, to be perfectionist, to put work ahead of other aspects of life and to value the intellectual over other pursuits. 

In my experience, they are most likely to describe themselves as introverts. Such labels have been shown to be inaccurate – we all display different characteristics in different contexts. However, once we have accepted a pigeonhole, we tend to burrow into it. 


Take Ben, a senior associate at a major global law firm. He comes from a family of successful lawyers, is ambitious, smart and well read on a wide range of topics. He could come across as always needing to be right – even insensitive. Those who worked closely with him daily saw his good side, liked him and admired his legal abilities and drive. But they could see he could sometimes rub people – including clients – the wrong way. 

At the prompting of partners, Ben received coaching and began to upskill himself socially and change his image. He was excited by the process of better understanding others and himself. He loved watching his young son develop. He began to mentor juniors and looked like a shoo-in for partnership.

Then covid-19 hit. During the lockdown, Ben initially took part in the virtual practice group team activities in which colleagues shared favourite movies and funny incidents. These died out as the crisis became a hard slog. There were fewer new interesting matters and more business development, with less certain results.  

Ben became increasingly distant from team members and communicated almost solely by email. His wife began to complain that he buried himself in his home office and when he emerged seemed less inclined to talk. He was more annoyed by his son’s demands for attention, his gym had closed and he got no exercise. 

In virtual meetings with both partners and clients, his camera was always off; it became clear he was often doing other things and not listening well. When a partner noted this, Ben replied, ‘I heard everything that was important’.

On learning he had not been made partner, Ben became even more withdrawn. He was no longer the go to person on important matters. He developed physical symptoms such as backache and fatigue and his GP referred him to a psychologist. Ben said he would wait until he could go to sessions in person, which has still not happened.

There are many such stories. Humans are social creatures, but we tend to withdraw under stress. 

When social rituals and daily contact are interrupted, especially in the context of health and financial uncertainty, we become more stressed and are at risk of isolating further. This vicious cycle can lead to relationship breakups, isolation and mental health issues. 

Before covid-19, workplace stress was already rising globally at the rate of 70 per cent every four years. Over the past year, our emotional (and probably physical) immune system has taken a beating. 

Virtual working saves employers money on facilities. This shift, which looks permanent to most researchers, will continue to present opportunities and dangers for people’s wellbeing. It seems the less we meet each other in person, the more we’re in danger of withdrawing. 

Home alone

People living alone are at greatest risk for isolation and mental health issues. In some cases, couples have spent more time together and become closer while marriages of couples living together during covid-19 are reportedly on the rise. 

For a while, many of my clients were delighted to be at home, even if they were working. Home-schooling had its own stresses, but it brought parents much closer to their kids’ learning experiences. However, for many working parents the expectations of both families and employers are now both higher. 

There is now the lack of fixed working hours and many lawyers are expected to be on call any time. With seemingly more discretion over how they spend their time, families also expect more of each other.

This often translates into less sleep, less ‘me’ time and fewer opportunities to just switch off. In the face of rising demands, we tend to withdraw emotionally and, in terms of relationships, often completely. 

In cases where relationship fault lines went unaddressed because busy partners spent less time together, families became a source of stress. The divorce rate is also rising: last November, leading family firm Stewarts said it had logged a 122 per cent increase in enquiries between July and October 2020, compared with the same period the previous year.

Working virtually offers less opportunity to bring up issues in informal settings or while walking to a meeting. Trust in colleagues and clients is more difficult to build and easier to lose. This translates into less effectiveness, collegiality, openness, shared goals and motivation further eroding relationships and, of course, trust.

One of the most glaring signs (and drivers) of the relationship remoteness aligned to home working is that so many people do not turn on their cameras in virtual meetings. Senior partners I speak with say this is endemic in their teams, even after people are asked to show their faces. 

“This is true even at the executive level,” one practice group head of a global firm tells me. “I am convinced even senior partners are working on other things during meetings. Even I can’t resist scanning the emails that pop up on my screen. And we seem to be having more and more meetings.

"Maybe because we are less at ease with each other we’re afraid not to include everyone with a remote interest in what’s going on. I have 12 to 15 meetings a day with no time in between to think or plan. So, then I work late answering emails. Or, when I’m really stuck, answer them during virtual meetings.”

Research shows that it’s not possible to focus properly on any activity while multitasking. But the bigger issue around turning your camera off concerns the relationship statement it sends. Those who decline to show themselves have their own reasons, even besides multi-tasking.

Perhaps they are having a bad hair day or don’t want team members to see the kids running around behind them. But the relationship message to others, even if not fully conscious, is that the person doesn’t want to be fully present. 

Visual signals

To feel fully safe with other people, we need to be able to receive relationship signals. A smile, raising eyebrows in surprise, wrinkling the forehead in worry or puzzlement – these let us know what is going on with someone and how they feel about us or what we’re saying. Absent these signals, it’s hard to feel trust within the relationship.

This all leads to a worrying increase in isolation, depression and anxiety disorders among professionals. A study completed towards the end of last year revealed a doubling of the depression rate in the UK (the US was worse, if that’s any consolation).

My message is: turn on those cameras. 

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is principal at Fortinberry Murray


Lexis+ AI