10 tips for lawyers who want to improve their mental health
06 Oct 2020
We’ve spent the last few weeks looking at some insightful pieces relating specifically to “mental health” in the legal profession:
- The discomfort around the topic of mental health in the legal sector (Article 1)
- The global statistics proving that the legal sector really does have a mental health problem (Article 2); and
- The importance of having open and honest conversations around mental health in order to break the associated stigma in the legal world (Article 3).
Now, it’s important that we also highlight some of the common situations experienced by legal professionals on a daily basis, which often negatively impact on their mental health. As the penultimate topic in this mental health series, we feel it is important to consider astute discussions around steps that can be taken by legal professionals to improve their mental health going forward.
We’re all different
I want to start by saying that every lawyer is different. Every person is different. Their life experiences are different. Their resilience levels are different. Their coping mechanisms are different. So, a situation which may seem manageable to one lawyer, may well be experienced very differently by another. And the impact on their mental health may differ also. Vastly.
I’ll give you an example. I’ve spent my legal career in very alpha-dominated environments: on a trading floor and in private practice. I’m used to dealing with unwanted attention, big tempers and high-pressured, competitive work environments. It doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the negative effects of these, but I have a pretty good coping mechanism in place. One could say that I became accustomed to what those environments entailed. But I also have a personality which has the ability to call someone out when a line has been crossed, and to say ‘no’ when something is not acceptable. And that took some learning.
That isn’t the case for everyone. With job security (especially now), being so high on the list of priorities for most people, standing up for themselves or asking for help (when they are struggling), is not going to come easily. Instead, the impact of the event is internalised; it conflicts with personal values and morals, and causes more distress for the individual. It is a snow ball waiting to happen. And not in the fun, “do you want to build a snowman” kind of way.
The reason I mention this up front is that some of the situations listed below may seem trivial or part and parcel of being a lawyer. The “keep quiet and get on with it” mentality. But we are looking at this through our own lens. It is therefore very subjective. And for you to understand mental health triggers more clearly, we need to start seeing things from multiple perspectives.
A reminder of what ‘mental health’ really is
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as:
“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Simply put – mental health is a state of well-being, something which everyone possesses and which can fluctuate from time to time. Naturally. We all experience different levels of mental health throughout our lives (good, mediocre and poor). It’s not static. It’s not constant. And, it is certainly not a weakness. It is actually part and parcel of simply being a human being. Remember, lawyers are not super human, they are just human.
Poor mental health can manifest in a variety of ways and to varying degrees, including: stress, anxiety, changes in mood / behaviour, erratic thinking, impulsive actions, low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, insomnia, burnout (and those are just a few of them).
It leaves you drained, emotional, hyper-sensitive (or numb), and to be honest, sometimes, quite teary-eyed. We have all been through it (even if we do not, unfortunately, openly admit it).
But, what situations contribute to these dips in our mental health?
Common causes of mental health issues in the legal sector
Seeking to identify every situation which could impact the mental health of an individual would be impossible. As we said, everyone is different and so are their tolerance levels. However, here are some of the more common situations expressed by legal professionals that have taken a toll on their mental and physical health:
- Building your own practice area: Whether that be as an independent legal practitioner, a Senior Associate creating a business case for partnership, or as an existing partner – there is a constant pressure to bring in regular and/or new business into the firm. The COVID-19 pandemic has merely exacerbated this already stressful dynamic, causing more anxiety, more erratic behaviour and, for many, even more sleepless nights.
- Too much work / too little personal life: We’ve previously talked about the pressures imposed by the billable hour model and the expectations within firms that staff should be contactable 24/7. There is barely any downtime and this has a knock-on effect to the personal life of individuals. Many lawyers experience fractious home relationships with their partners and children, miss important events, work through holidays and weekends. There is a constant pressure to be 100% percent ‘on’ in everything they do (to basically be Wonder Woman / Superman). It’s no wonder that the proverbial balls get dropped from trying to juggle too much. It’s exhausting!
- Sedentary lifestyles: When you work long hours, you spend a lot of time sitting at your desk. This often leads to unhealthy eating habits (both to stay awake and sustained), lethargy sets in, the desire to exercise dissipates, and the weight starts to pile on. Client dinners and drinks are also part of the course, fueling the unhealthy lifestyle even further.
- Inter-office relationships: With so much time being spent in the office, it’s no wonder that romantic relationships with colleagues form. Sometimes those relationships flourish, but more often than not, they serve as an interim distraction before one party moves on. Needless to say, that daily reminder of the more intimate relationship that once was, can be painful, distracting and in some cases debilitating.
- Toxic work environments: One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is with regards to unhappy working environments. The insecurities displayed within legal teams can be rife! Jostling for promotions. Competition for work to be seen up the chain. Personality clashes. Bullying. Back-stabbing. Ostracism. If you are on the receiving end of any of the pushback, the office can feel like a mine-field. You remain on tenterhooks all day and then bring the emotional drama home with you at night. A never-ending spiral.
- The ‘-isms’: Sexism, racism, machoism, chauvinism – the list goes on. I’d love to say these things no longer exist in professional working environments, but they do. And the impact of being treated as an outsider / lesser than, can have a detrimental impact on the mental health of an individual.
The COVID-19 pandemic in many respects has eased (or rather deferred) the negative impact of some of the traditional legal sector scenarios. Fewer people are in the office. More time is spent at home with family. Any negative day-to-day interaction is dispelled. But, the pandemic itself has introduced new stressors into the mix:
- Lack of communication – Whereas some lawyers strive in the home office environment, others struggle with being away from their friends and colleagues. Many worry about the impact that this is having on their legal education and development. Feelings of isolation are common (particularly for those living on their own). Many worry about what others are doing; about being too quiet; about being forgotten.
- Job security concerns – Some legal practices are booming at present (as is always the case in a crisis), but others are not. There is an increased anxiety about meeting targets and covering overheads. As Government-backed plans near their term, concerns around job security are on the rise. Many law firms have already cut their salaries or created innovative ways to manage cashflow issues – but as the economic stress continues – there are increasing concerns around job losses and the knock-on impact this has to family life.
- Troubled relationships – Strained office relationships have been replaced with strained home relationships. Juggling cleaning, cooking, work, online schooling, zoom calls, an hour of exercise etc., into a workable routine has worked for some, but for others, it’s resulted in heated arguments, more reliance on alcohol, poor communication and, in some cases, the collapse of the relationship altogether.
- Feelings of guilt – Many individuals are experiencing guilt for a variety of reasons: not being able to visit elderly relatives, struggling to be emotionally available for family members, ignoring their children because they are supposed to be working; overworking because they feel guilty that they haven’t been impacted financially as a result of the pandemic.
- Pressures to return to work – As the business world opens its physical doors again, many people are experiencing anxiety around returning to the office for fear of catching the virus, (particularly those who live with vulnerable family members) or returning to previously hostile environments.
The list is endless. And, I repeat, different people will experience these scenarios in different ways. Some lawyers have thrived through lockdown – personal relationships have improved, new online relationships have blossomed, work flow has been at an all-time high, many are genuinely excited about getting back into the office and networking again, and feeling that familiar business buzz.
But, for those of you who are struggling with your mental health at the moment, let’s look at some strategies that can help improve your mental health in a healthy, productive and proactive way.
So, what can you do to help yourself? Today!
It’s easy to blame the competitive and demanding legal industry for our mental health problems, but it cannot be held solely responsible. Whereas law firms and corporates have a responsibility to address systemic issues which negatively impact the health of their staff, we too, as individuals, have a responsibility to look after ourselves as best we can (physically, mentally and emotionally).
Practical steps that you can already start doing today include:
- Get to grips with your values – when was the last time you sat down and identified your core values? Often the struggles we face in life are either because we are not living by our core values or because two or more of our values are in conflict with each other. If this sounds familiar, consider working with me to re-discover your core values and bring your life back into balance. Book a discovery call for more information
- Sleep – poor sleep has been linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. According to Harvard Medical School, studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability. For professionals, 8 hours sleep may not feel like an option. So, concentrate on quality over quantity. Blue light (that bright white light emitted by our electronic devices) messes with our body’s ability to prepare for sleep. It blocks a hormone called melatonin that makes us sleepy. So, 30 minutes before bedtime, instead of scrolling through social media and emails (we all do it!), grab a Nicholas Sparkes off the bookshelf and lose yourself in the fictional world.
- Keep active – lulls in mental health can leave you feeling sluggish and less inclined to exercise but it’s important to try and keep yourself moving. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and releases endorphins, our body’s own anti-depressant. It also releases other neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which lifts our mood.
- Sing – yes, gents, you too! There is nothing quite like belting out a good tune to lift your mood! Here is a list put together by Billboard if you are looking for some positive inspiration. Singing is a natural anti-depressant. Like exercise, it releases endorphins and makes you feel happy. Scientists have also proven that a tiny organ in the ear (the sacculus) responds to the frequencies created by singing. The response creates an immediate sense of pleasure, irrespective of how good or bad your singing is. Watch out Elton John!
- Eat well – eating foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, protein, and fatty acids is key to keeping your brain in good working order and therefore improving mental health. Eat regularly throughout the day to maintain a constant blood sugar level and avoid those dreaded sugar crashes. Aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, limit your alcohol intake (as it has a depressant effect on the brain, which can result in a rapid worsening of your mood) and make sure you keep hydrated. We all need a treat now and then, but if your mood is low, improving your diet is a quick and easy area to make improvements.
- Meditate – I won’t lie. It’s not for everyone. But if you are stressed and are looking for a simple way to take time out from the relentless pace of daily life, then meditation and mindfulness exercises are a great place to start. It can be a challenge to begin with, but free apps such as Headspace, Simple Habit and Oak can all help you to train your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.
- Prioritize priorities – let’s be honest, yes, work is demanding, but there are successful lawyers and entrepreneurs, with the same number of hours in the day, who manage to have a happy and fulfilling life outside of the office. What secret do they know that you don’t? They make a choice. They have balance. Next time you hear yourself saying: “I just don’t have the time”, I invite you to consciously stop and ask yourself these three questions:
- “What am I prioritising here?”
- “What am I sacrificing?”
- “Is this the option I want to choose?”
- Live within your means – we live in a world which encourages us to overspend. It’s all well and good wanting to keep up with the Kardashians’, but a decadent lifestyle can handcuff you. By reining back our outgoings, we give ourselves freedom, flexibility and a lot less stress.
- Maintain your external relationships – invest time and energy in your relationships outside of the office. They matter. When things get tough at work, colleagues can often feel conflicted. It is your friends and family outside of the office who will be your greatest support. So take the time to build and maintain these relationships.
- Seek external support – coaching, counselling and mentorship services, such as those that can be found at Braving Boundaries, offer a confidential space to talk and think through any personal difficulties with a trained professional. Many people find it helpful to do this with someone who isn’t a friend or family member.
And if you need a little more encouragement, try one of these on for size –
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ―E.E. Cummings
“It is courage, courage, courage, that raises the blood of life to crimson splendor. Live bravely and present a brave front to adversity.” ―Horace
It takes courage and bravery to admit that you are experiencing an issue. It takes courage and bravery to “grow up” and become the person you are meant to be. But it takes even more courage and even more bravery to take a stand for yourself and demand from life the things that you actually want. But it is worth it. Because your desires and life goals matter. Not “one day”. But today. “Hell is life drying up”. And that happens when you stay stuck in the same old rut.
So take your first step and prevent a life only half lived.
- The fear around mental health in the legal world
- The impact of stress-related illnesses and psychological issues in the workplace
- A thought piece on ethical conduct for attorneys, advocates and corporate counsel having regard to the Legal Practice Act, 2014
- Psychological disorders? Judgment of Ockert Jansen v Legal Aid South Africa
- Depression: The impact that it has on an employee’s functioning
- Enhanced skills for legal professionals lead to better outcomes