Mental Health and the Legal Profession

by Rebecca Higgs on 07 February 2018

We have made it! All of us have made it through the longest January known to man and we all deserve a great big high five! It is not the easiest month for anybody; returning to work after the Christmas break, skint, cold, potentially recovering from the Australian flu. The latter coupled with dark nights and heavy workloads can cause even the most “normal” person to implode! Whatever normal is?!?

What sparked me to write this? Well, it has been a particularly difficult couple of weeks for me. Having suffered with anxiety and depression for over eight years it seems January 2018 just hit me hard, much harder than usual. I am a young(ish) professional who is career minded, goal-orientated, very outgoing and confident. From an outsider’s perspective, I have “everything going for me”, but the truth is mental health does not discriminate. I still suffer. Over the years I have become well adept at recognising the signs and quickly utilising my car boot full of techniques to keep the fog at bay, allowing me to not only survive, but to thrive in this fast-paced world we live in. My employer, G2 Legal has been extremely supportive – not just the management, but my colleagues too, which has really helped. So, I thought there was no better time to share some tips and information regarding mental well-being in the work place especially within the legal profession.

The worrying facts

It is alarming to discover that stress and mental ill-health are now the top reasons for long-term sickness from work and is also the number one cause of stress in the UK. Having looked into statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive, it is said that the legal profession ranks as the third most stressful field (not that surprising really!). Also, a survey of the legal profession by LawCare revealed that more than 50 per cent of the profession felt stressed and that 19 per cent were suffering from clinical depression. This is alarming and a lot to digest.

However, awareness of mental health issues affecting the legal sector has grown significantly in recent years. No longer a taboo subject, a task force was set up back in 2016 “The Legal Profession’s Well-being Taskforce” which was initiated by the Law Society and driven by LawCare with its aim being to ‘establish and share best practice across the profession; improve perception of mental health and well-being, and address what barriers still exist to people seeking help’. With this promotion of mental well-being in the legal profession it seems we have seen a significant shift in the way law firms are dealing with work related stress.

With mental health now high on the agenda The Law Society held a conference in March 2017 “Stress in the Legal Profession: A new approach”. This talk identified key questions for firms to address including how to open up dialogue about stress, and how do we tackle stress at the root of the problem?

What is being done?

Many law firms have found their own ways to apply this and one which truly stands out to me is that at national law firm, Horwich Farrelly Solicitors, who in October last year appointed 19 “mental health first aiders” who will provide support and guidance for colleagues. The first aiders have been trained to spot early symptoms and encourage people to access professional support – this is thought to be the first of its kind for a UK law firm and goes someway in showing how far we have come in recent years. There are other law firms who have equally ground-breaking initiatives and I think this is a hugely positive step, but I also think there is a wider need for all sufferers to feel secure enough to talk about the way they are feeling. There is no doubt about it – talking helps. Tell your line manager, speak to HR or a colleague - you are not going to feel worse for it. Picture this example of mine – I was 20 years old, the world at my feet and in my third year of my LLB. I start feeling dizzy, concentration is at an all-time low, my appetite non-existent. I struggled to sit in crowded places and then I struggled to even get to crowded places as public transport caused me to feel all kinds of weird ways. I didn’t want to tell anybody as I thought I was “going mad”, but the signs became obvious to my close friends and family who encouraged me to open up. Talking saved my life. Friends and family supported me. Doctors provided me with options moving forward and counselling (more talking) helped even more. My top tip: Never under estimate the simple power of talking.

Anyway I digress…

Positive changes have also been noted in the City with firms such as Hogan Lovells, Gowling WLG, Linklaters and Slaughter and May to name a few. They all joined the ‘City Mental Health Alliance’ which is a coalition of organisations that have come together to create an environment in the City where mental health is discussed in the same way as physical health. This is a great move for City firms who have significant resources to support their individuals. Things like access to an on-site counsellor, well-being advice on the intranet, mindfulness mornings and yoga classes go a long way to supporting legal professionals in the City. But what about opening the “mental health” door in smaller firms with limited resources to support their staff?

I feel like it does not necessarily take money and resources to help people. Employers can help by detecting it early, monitoring working hours, changes in behaviour, offering flexible working, and one-to-ones or simply asking their employees “Are you ok”? If you have the trust of your employees and you offer an open-door policy, that can be a great start!

 

Moving forward

While firms continue to improve their stance on these sensitive issues, it’s vital to also remember the importance of self-care. If you’re working horrifically long hours or working in a toxic environment and your superiors won’t work with you to alleviate this, this could have disastrous effects. Try exploring opportunities with a better work-life balance and a friendlier culture – I promise there really are nice firms out there, and at the end of the day you should always put yourself and your family first!

Obviously, these last few weeks for me have been some of the worst I have dealt with in years. This isn’t work related stress, but the fact I have been anxious and depressed has led to a severe lack in concentration at work. I consulted my trainer (though she’s more like a personal life coach) and she said a few words that really helped that I just needed to pass on. “Be kind to yourself”. We all need to remember that whilst we are all on over-drive, going at one hundred miles an hour, trying to cram forty hours of work into a twelve hour day, sometimes we just need to stop. Feel. Be in the moment and be kind to ourselves.

In summary, the legal world has made great strides in offering those suffering mental health issues the support they deserve, but there’s still more work to be done.

What do you think would have the greatest impact in improving well-being in the workplace?

If you would like any more information on mental health, please do look into LawCare and other charities to include MIND (which G2Legal employees are supporting this year as their chosen company charity). Rebecca Higgs.

 

About the author

Experienced Legal Recruiter placing legal professionals from Partners, Associates, and Solicitors through to Paralegals and Legal Secretaries into private practices across the West Midlands