In our last blog to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Liz Gilmour considers how the legal sector can no longer shrug off issues such as stress and mental health.
Does it surprise you to know that the 2017 Junior Lawyers Division resilience and wellbeing survey found that:
- 90% of junior lawyers were experiencing stress in their roles, and
- over 26% of junior lawyers reported severe / extreme levels of stress?
I must admit that it did not surprise me that much. I was once a junior lawyer. I reflected on how easy it might be to shrug your shoulders and say that the stress just comes with the job, and move on.
But let’s just think about this a little more.
Stress hampers our ability to do a good job, especially if that stress is ever-present. The consequences of stress can include the following.
- Our decision-making faculties are compromised and we make mistakes.
- Our judgement is clouded: we can be tempted to engage in behaviour that falls short of the values we would actually like to live by.
- We may turn to over-eating, alcohol or drugs because this is often the quickest and easiest way to get some temporary emotional relief from the unpleasantness of feeling stressed.
- We become short-tempered and find it difficult to have compassion and see things from another’s point of view. This can ignite and sustain conflict between colleagues and others.
- Our health suffers: stress can exacerbate nearly every ailment or illness you can think of and often leads to chronic illness and burnout, so that we are not even capable of turning up at work at all anymore.
In contrast, we also know that we thrive when we: are in good health; have slept well; get to spend quality time with those we love; get to do the things we love; get the opportunity to exercise or to be in nature; and also when we feel that we are contributing in a meaningful way to society, and are growing emotionally and spiritually.
Under these conditions of thriving, we can tap into our creativity and inspiration, and find great reserves of energy. We feel eager and excited to do our work which then does excite, re-energise and inspire us instead of leaving us feeling depleted.
It is our creativity, inspiration and energy that will allow us to respond to the challenges of a world that is changing exponentially faster and is increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex.
If solicitors are not able to change how they work and how they deliver legal services to meet the needs and conditions of a changing world, firms will struggle to thrive or even survive in the long term.
A shrugging of shoulders and ploughing on as before is no longer an option.
So what is to be done instead?
The recently issued Law Society guidance on resilience and wellbeing suggests a whole raft of measures that a firm can employ to improve wellbeing, but I believe that if things are to truly change, culture change must come first.
I believe that the first step is to get away from a narrow definition of success, one which values billable hours above all else. There must be a re-assessment of what success really means. Are the solicitors in a firm simply fee machines, or is the definition of success something much wider which includes making a positive and meaningful contribution to the world, while looking after ourselves – and everyone else we work and interact with – in the process?
This is where the energy, motivation and drive to invest in supporting great wellbeing will be found.
Engaging everyone in discussion about purpose
A powerful way to achieve this would be to engage your entire organisation in a discussion about what you are collectively trying to achieve, so that everyone understands the group’s purpose.
By asking the right questions, firms will be able to:
- Engage the whole organisation, allowing new shared beliefs and values to emerge, instead of each person making individual assumptions about everyone else’s views.
- Accurately understand their own unique situation in relation to what support is needed to create a great working-culture.
- Break down any damaging stigma surrounding mental health issues so this subject is no longer ‘something people just don’t talk about’.
As the old saying goes: ‘If you do what you always do, you will get what you always get.’
There needs to be a cultural change in the legal profession for solicitors and law firms to thrive, but – to change – organisations must first change their collective ideas about their greater purpose and priorities, by involving everyone in the discussion.
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