BLOG: Your mind is your weapon – take care of it

Alison Lobb, Morecrofts Managing Partner

In Mental Health awareness week we are all hearing a great deal from all directions about stress and wellbeing issues, both within the legal profession and generally in the world of employment.

With that in my own mind, as well as inspiration from the charity LawCare, this seemed an appropriate time for reflection on what we as responsible employers can do, and how we can listen to those around us and what we can learn.

Some of the statistics I have heard in the last few weeks include (from the Junior Lawyers (JLD) Resilience and Wellbeing Survey report, Lawcare and other sources):

Two surveys that say lawyers are the second most stressed profession – one behind nurses, the other behind HR professionals.

  • 48% of junior lawyers had experienced mental ill-health within the last month but only 19% had reported it to their employer
  • 93.5% of junior lawyers had experienced work related stress within the last month
  • One in 15 junior lawyers had contemplated suicide.
  • 65% of those attending their GP are doing so because of a stress related illness
  • Only one in 10 employees would feel comfortable talking about issues such as post natal depression and eating disorders with their employer.

These are things that no-one wants to hear and there is no doubt that mental health issues are at the forefront of many of our minds these days, whether that is because we are more aware of the issues or because it is more of an issue in this world of pressure from connectivity, social media and no escape from work. When I started out in the profession, I don’t remember any mention of stress or self care, there was pressure to work long hours and to be seen to be doing so, there was an expectation that work, work and more work were what came first and I don’t think anyone would have dared to say they were struggling to cope with that. No wonder I know so many people who started off in the law but aren’t there any longer.

Lawcare, a charity who offer support and assistance to anyone working in the legal profession, tell us that they have been talking about mental health and self-care issues within the legal profession for over 20 years, but only in recently has it become something which they feel has been taken seriously across the whole profession, and even now only in varying degrees.

As an employer, the most challenging part of our role is undoubtedly the fact that we are dealing with people. Everyone is an individual, and everyone reacts in different ways. There is no doubt that stressful situations such as working to deadlines, responding instantly, sudden changes of instructions, difficult client and opponents, public speaking and “thinking on your feet” are and have always been part of the job – the extent of which depends upon the nature of the work one is doing. Some people thrive on stress and the adrenaline rush of having to get everything done by a deadline, juggling the requirements of client, opponents and court, working right up to the last minute, others find it incredibly daunting and just want to hide or dwell on the difficulties and can’t get started. Stress is not always bad, it can be good, it can be what keeps people going and makes them feel rewarded, for some people it is what drives them and gives them purpose.

Mental wellbeing is to an extent a personal responsibility but there is so much we can do as employers to ensure the health of our team and provide them with every possible opportunity to care for themselves and others. Here are my top tips:

1. Work on your work/ life balance

The importance of this is becoming more and more recognised. As a colleague said to me only this morning, as humans we are living a life we were never supposed to lead. We need sunlight, exercise, company and respite from the digital pressures put upon us all.

Work-life balance doesn’t need to mean out of the door at 5pm, what it does mean is spending time for and on yourself and away from work, to recharge your batteries. Whether that means socialising with friends, playing a sport, time on your own, losing yourself in television or film, cooking, sewing or spending quality time with your family doesn’t matter. It’s something you are doing for you, not for anyone else. This is something I am really bad at and have vowed to improve.

My commitment this year is to make sure I prioritise playing tennis and put my tennis matches first before any work commitments, because when I’m hitting that tennis ball I can’t think about anything else. That can be difficult, but I’ve managed two out of three so far!

2. Talk to people

That might not be me, or your own boss. It might be your friend, your colleague, your partner, but you need to talk and never, ever, bottle things up. If people ask you if you’re ok – particularly at work – don’t just say yes.

There’s no shame in saying you’re struggling, because everyone does at some point and you’re not alone. Don’t assume people will judge you badly for it – you never know what struggles of their own people have gone through and how they might empathise. It works both ways though – if everyone is pouring out their problems and issues to you, then do you need help to deal with that as well?

If you are the boss, maybe you need a “release valve” too. Who do you talk to? You can’t take the world’s issues on your shoulders, or at least not for long. The old adage “a problem shared is a problem halved” is so true. As with everything else in life, communication is often the key.

3. Listen to people

Listening is communication too. If you are the one they are talking to then don’t make assumptions, don’t criticise, jump to conclusions or judge. Listen with an open mind, give them your full attention, try and understand and think about how you might be able to help. Give some thought about what options are available to help your staff and be ready to signpost them to someone who can help. We always advise our staff about resources such as Lawcare, the Law Society helpline, counselling which they can access through the Medicash scheme, relaxation groups, and other options that might be available. We might not be able to help, but hopefully we know someone who can.

4. Don’t be afraid to say no

Plan what you have to do, think about managing your time and what you have to achieve and are physically able to do. As a junior lawyer for example, you might be afraid to say no – so think about how you are saying it. Are you explaining why? Are you giving the impression you don’t want to do the work or aren’t interested?

Rather than just saying “I can’t take that on” why not say “I can’t take that on at the moment as I’m concerned I don’t have time to do that and the other X, Y & Z on my desk”. That might lead to a conversation about work allocation, levels of support, ways of working more efficiently and might help your employer to understand how you and your colleagues can work better for the benefit of the business.

The impact of mental health problems can not be ignored because this affects everyone. If employees suffer from mental health problems, then that doesn’t just affect them. It affects their employers, their employers’ businesses, and all of us, because they need help, and that’s usually through the NHS. Apparently the minimum current waiting time in some parts of the country for therapy or treatment is 4 ½ months – that’s actually pretty shocking for something that usually needs an urgent response. If things are kept hidden, they get worse, and take longer to resolve. We all need as employers, employees and just individuals, to be aware of these issues and to take action now. We have a duty to ourselves and to the people we depend upon to do that.

I will finish with a quote from Angus Lyon’s “A Lawyer’s guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress”:

Lawyers use their minds constantly, exercising their brains to find innovative solutions to client problems, anticipating potential pitfalls and developments in the course of a matter, and in managing and prioritising caseloads. The need to think about and care for our minds and be more aware of the minds of others (whether colleagues, clients opponents, family or friends) must be of prime concern.

I would venture to suggest this doesn’t just apply to lawyers but to anyone engaged in any form of work which involves thinking! Your brain is your weapon and the tool of your trade. Look after it well and help others to care for theirs too.

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