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Contributed by Arun Birla, Paul Hastings
Over the last few years, mental health and well-being have become part of mainstream conversation. The increasing number of individuals seeking care for mental health issues has pressured corporations to evolve to meet and support their needs.
A 2019 mental health at work report by Business in the Community, a charity, revealed that as many as two in five (39%) employees have experienced poor mental health due to work, or where work was a contributing factor, in the past year, up from 36% in 2017 and 2018.
Ideally, employees should no longer feel unable to come forward and tell their employer that they are struggling with poor mental health. While there has been a lot of positive change in the corporate world, there is still room for improvement.
In particular, the legal sector has still some distance to go in taking mental health from the shadows and into the spotlight. The fast and demanding pace of life in the legal sector means that lawyers, naturally, experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. It's therefore vital that they learn how to cope with these pressures in a healthy way.
Resilience is a vital part of a lawyer's toolkit for success, so much so, that when hiring new talent, law firms are increasingly outlining resilience as a key requirement for the role. However, what is it in practice and how do we learn to be resilient?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed. The ability to be happy, successful, etc. after something difficult or bad has happened.” Being resilient means that rather than letting traumatic events, difficulties, or failure overcome you or drain your resolve, you find a way to change your outlook, emotionally heal, and progress towards your end goals.
This view is echoed by Sasha Scott, an international thought leader on diversity, bias, inclusivity, and managing psychological health, who has spoken with lawyers to help them develop their own understanding of resilience and build it for themselves. While resilience is important at all times, the current pandemic crisis and subsequent upheaval in working practices has meant that everyone is being forced into being more resilient than usual.
Scott states that resilience can be learned and developed through the brain's ability to modify its physical structure: “We can alter our mindsets when faced with adversity in order to improve our resiliency levels and overall mental well-being.”
The legal landscape is fast-paced and high-pressure, which when coupled with the fact that many law firms are global in their reach, can make it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Law firms often have clients across the world and a network of offices with employees to connect with, which can make it difficult to switch off and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Similarly, a lawyer's DNA and skill set doesn't always naturally lend itself to being resilient. It is a lawyer's role to cross-examine people's thinking, and sometimes as much as 12 hours a day can be spent picking holes in arguments or contracts and analyzing how best to use these to your advantage. While a key part of the job, if this mindset creeps into your social life, it can be detrimental to your mental well-being. When under a lot of pressure and continually looking at situations with a critical frame of mind, it can be very difficult for even the most experienced lawyer to “snap out of it” and return to taking situations at face value.
It is therefore not surprising that the Law Society's Junior Lawyers Division 2019 well-being survey found that 48% of junior lawyers said they'd experienced a mental health problem in the month before taking part in research.
Whilst changing your mindset and outlook on a situation can take a lot of training and willpower, there are a number of things that lawyers can do to help improve their resilience. Focusing on your own personal well-being is the first step.
When approaching the crucial stages of a deal completion or when working on a particularly demanding case, it is easy to lose sight of the impact that long hours and stress can have on your well-being. However, setting time aside to focusing on your own well-being can help deal with the pressure, reduce the effect that stress has on your health, and minimize the chances of it negatively impacting your mental health or causing burnout. It's important to remember that resilience is more than being able to deal with setbacks in a positive way. It is also your ability to adapt in the face of challenging situations and maintain stable mental well-being, which is a vital skill for lawyers.
Practical exercises that help improve well-being include pacing yourself throughout the day and allowing time for breaks, setting work boundaries, taking time out for fun and relaxing activities, including exercise, and creating a work schedule that works for you and the global demands of clients.
Communication is one of the most important aspects of maintaining well-being. Whether it is discussing the more difficult parts of the day with colleagues or having a light-hearted conversation with friends and family, communication helps you wind down and has proven to be a huge part in improving health and outlook.
This is more important now than ever before as we continue to operate under lockdown. It is easy to shrink away in the confines of your own home when you are unable to leave it, and therefore it's important to take proactive steps to staying connected to family, friends, and colleagues.
Additionally, exercise goes a long way in helping you unwind, particularly exercises that can be done both at home and when traveling. While often overlooked, cooking is a good way to relieve stress, relax, and ensures you are eating well.
Much of the power to improve resilience and mental well-being sits with the individual, but law firm leaders also have a responsibility to create a culture that understands the importance of employee well-being and has measures in place to help support staff.
The JLD 2019 well-being survey also revealed that 58% of junior lawyers had considered taking time off work for mental health reasons, but did not do so. Similarly, only 19% said their employer was aware they were experiencing ill mental health. These statistics show that across the industry more needs to be done to help raise awareness of the importance of well-being, including education on how to cope with workplace pressure and an acceptance that mental health is just as important as physical health.
Law firms should consider implementing initiatives that seek to mitigate the negative impacts of life in the legal sector by providing health and wellness resources and support to achieve a better work-life balance. Introducing such measures can help break down the barriers to discussing mental health, and demonstrate a commitment to creating a culture that appreciates its importance.
The pressure of life in the legal sector can at times be overwhelming, but developing a coping strategy and continuing to take time to focus on personal well-being can go a long way in helping relieve the pressure. Being resilient is a key part of any lawyer's skill set, and it is important to take the time to nurture that skill—as the saying goes, practice makes perfect.