World Mental Health Day: Protecting Lawyers’ Wellbeing

As we approach World Mental Health Day on 10th October 2020, it is a perfect opportunity to consider how those in the legal profession can protect their mental health and wellbeing. Everyone is aware that mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and lawyers are far from immune. In fact, lawyers have been shown to particularly vulnerable to poor wellbeing and mental health problems, whilst also being less likely to recognise these and take action to resolve issues.  After months of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and working from home, which not everyone enjoys, it is more important than ever that we reflect on our individual mental health and wellbeing.

The term wellbeing is used to describe our level of functioning and health across all facets of our lives, including physical and mental health. Research has shown that in many cases, mental health problems can be prevented or managed by ensuring that we maintain a good level of wellbeing and do not simply react to manage a crisis once it has occurred. Investing in wellbeing supports a resilient and productive working life and reduces the risk of stress and burn out. We set out below our top tips for lawyers and law firms to manage their wellbeing and that of their staff during this challenging time.

Take a proper lunch break

Taking regular breaks often feels difficult however both our body and brain need the opportunity to rest and reset. Investing a small amount of time for a break will boost productivity later in the day as well as wellbeing.  Try to take regular breaks and in particular, have a proper lunch break, for at least 30 minutes. Ideally, during your lunch break make sure you move away from your work area and try and get some fresh air, even if it is only for a short walk around the block. Firms can support this by ensuring there are comfortable areas for lunch breaks in the office and organising or supporting short lunchtime activities including wellbeing activities.

At a time when some firms have been forced to contemplate redundancies, lawyers are likely to be even less confident to stick their head above the parapet and confess they are struggling

Communicate

Now more than ever, communication is important. This is a time when people feel more out of control and more anxious than normal. It is important for lawyers to continue to communicate with their departments and teams about what is happening and why.

It is also important that firms ensure that communication works both ways and that partners and managers provide opportunities for staff to raise questions and concerns and to promote this as being non-judgemental.

At a time when some firms have been forced to contemplate redundancies, lawyers are likely to be even less confident to stick their head above the parapet and confess they are struggling, but firms need to create a stigma-free culture and model a proactive, non-judgemental approach to wellbeing and mental health to demonstrate that it is safe for lawyers to do this.

Accept that it is normal to feel up and down

Just like a car on a long journey, it does not bode well to continue ignoring warning lights which come on and refusing to stop for fuel because we feel we do not have time!

All facets of wellbeing, including mood, motivation and feelings of stress can be thought of as being on a continuum and ever-changing, depending on what is happening in our lives and workplaces. It is completely normal that at times we notice that some are low – we are after all lawyers are not robots. We need to normalise how stressful things have been and how they continue to be, and that it is completely normal to be feeling up and down, with some days naturally being easier than others.

Lawyers tend to put on a brave face when struggling with their wellbeing, but this can just maintain a false façade and perpetuate the unhealthy stigma of ‘powering through’. Just like a car on a long journey, it does not bode well to continue ignoring warning lights which come on and refusing to stop for fuel because we feel we do not have time!

Partners should ensure that they are not only advocating wellbeing to their teams, but that they are modelling them as well; they should ensure that they are not burning out and working themselves into the ground, or worse, making junior colleagues feel judged for reaching out for help.

Social contact

There is a great wellbeing benefit to informal and social contact with colleagues. Whilst abiding by social distancing requirements, it is important to maintain connections throughout teams, so that people have the chance to stay in touch and have the opportunity for peer support. This is particularly important when all or part of the team are working from home and/or anyone in the team is self-isolating.

We need to be proactive rather than reactive with our wellbeing and recognise the old saying that ‘prevention is better than cure’.

Online working platforms such as Microsoft Teams allow for quick and easy interaction via chat features which show when individuals are available which can replicate the informal discussions which would take place in the office and remove the worry of disturbing someone with numerous telephone calls.

Activities such as lunchtime online drops ins, informal catch-ups or even quiz nights (bring your own bottle) might seem a little cliché but really help keep peer friendships and support strong.

Be proactive rather than reactive

We need to be proactive rather than reactive with our wellbeing and recognise the old saying that ‘prevention is better than cure’.

Where can I go to get help with my mental health?

Anyone needing support with their mental health should contact their GP as a first point of call. However, for non-medical support there are various charities which can help with your mental health. There is a charity many of you will have heard of called Law Care, who promote and support good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community, and who offer a helpline for lawyers and have a wellbeing hub.

Other organisations, such as Aspire Training Solutions are currently providing a free WELLteam health and wellbeing needs assessment for organisations, including solicitors firms. This assessment is recommended by Public Health England who support the use of external organisations to facilitate wellbeing surveys and assessments to encourage candid and anonymous feedback. They provide a free report and discussion following the assessment, bringing their expertise and detailing evidence-based recommendations to enhance the wellbeing and productivity in the organisation.  https://www.aspiretraining.solutions/wellteam-assessment

Written by Marie Dancer, Managing Partner at Richard Nelson LLP and Michelle Brook & Becca Simpson, Co-Founders and Directors of Aspire Training Solutions.

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