I have been a qualified solicitor for four years. In that time, I have focused on updating my legal knowledge, improving my skills and getting involved in as many events to promote my team’s expertise and skills as possible. Throughout this time, I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to stay fit and eat healthily, as I know this helps me to concentrate when I am in the office. But what I have not considered, not even once, is focusing on my own mental wellbeing. This changed for me when I attended a YRES (Resolution’s network of younger family law professionals) conference last year.
At the conference there were a number of different speakers, many of whom emphasised the need for junior (and indeed more experienced) solicitors to look after themselves. Following the conference, I decided to look further into this issue, and I was staggered by some of the information that I came across.
The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society produced a report in April 2019 entitled “Resilience and Wellbeing Survey 2019”. Its findings were based on an online survey produced by the JLD about negative stress and mental ill-health, which was completed by 1,803 participants. The summary results were:
- The proportion of participants who regularly or occasionally felt unable to cope with stress at work was 52%.
- The proportion of respondents who felt regularly unable to cope as a result of stress was 19%.
- 9% of the participants working with vulnerable clients regularly felt unable to cope, in contrast to 17% of those not working for this client group.
- Over a third of the participants regularly felt stress at work (37%) and over half of the participants reported moderate levels of stress. A quarter reported severe or extreme levels of stress at work.
- Over half of the participants reported mental ill-health (whether formally diagnosed or not), the majority of whom were women.
Around half of the participants (49%) worked for organisations that offered support and guidance for those suffering with mental health issues, but the majority of participants felt that their employers could do more in respect to providing support and guidance for both mental health issues (78%) and stress at work (77%). If you are working for a firm that does not have initiatives in place to assist with your mental health, you must bring these statistics to the attention of your employers.
Indeed, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has himself impressed the importance of looking after yourself at work:
“I have made the issue of well-being, for all in the system… my priority… It remains most important that regard for wellbeing remains in the prominent position that it now holds in our collective consciousness.”
It is of course not only junior solicitors that suffer with stress at work, and in fact, some may suggest that the higher up in the ranks you go, the more responsibility you take on, and thus the higher level of stress from which you suffer. It has been recognised that judges experience some of the highest levels of stress at work, and as such, an enhanced welfare programme was introduced to assist them (following the 2018 report of Lord Burnett of Maldon, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales).
There are various suggestions as to how we can look after our mental wellbeing in the workplace. For example, the NHS provides some useful guidance about coping with stress (bit.ly/2C4mNY8) and the information provided by Lawcare across its website is extremely useful indeed.
For family lawyers in particular, Christopher Mills, a psychotherapist who has worked alongside legal professionals for many years, has written a book outlining the benefits of family law “supervisors”: An Introduction to Family Law Supervision 2018. It is his view that family lawyers should have regular and ongoing meetings with supervisors to help them understand the emotions they feel when helping clients, so that they can explore and reflect upon their own feelings.
Whatever it is that an individual or their firm decides to do to promote mental wellbeing, the most important thing to remember is that our minds matter, and failure to look after them can have real and tangible consequences, particularly in light of the current circumstances in which we all find ourselves in. After all, if we do not look after ourselves, how can we look after our clients?