Take it from me: it’s time we all addressed wellbeing

As a member of Resolution’s Wellbeing Committee, I never truly thought my own health could be at risk. But in our line of work we simply cannot afford to be complacent about the pressures we face

I thought hard about whether I should write this article. It is something that is very personal to me yet the more I thought about it, the more it felt right to share my story, which reflects in part how the work that we do in our profession can sometimes inadvertently cause harm to our mental health if not addressed properly. I hope by being frank and honest about my own experience, this shall start a conversation that could bring real change to the current culture that exists in our line of work.

At the end of 2021 and in 2022, there were four moments that I would describe as having a negative impact on my mental health. These were:

  1. A bereavement in the family.
  2. Supporting my parents and grandparents (in their 90s) in selling their respective properties so that they could secure a property together, and dealing with the problems that arose which led to a risk they would be without a property for a short period of time.
  3. Having damage caused to my home, some of which I discovered was not covered by insurance and then in terms of the repairs, having to deal with a “cowboy builder”, resulting in my family savings being wiped out, having to secure a second mortgage on the property, and having to raise further funds to cover the shortfall.
  4. Alongside the above, attempting to work on a day-to-day basis with a busy workload, albeit the pressures I faced with work I would say were significantly contributed by one difficult client, who was able to penetrate the boundaries I previously set in place to protect my wellbeing.

Certainly, points 3 and 4 above were contributing factors to my life spiralling out of control at the end of 2022 and early 2023, and having such a significant impact on my health that my GP signed me off work for one month. By the autumn of 2022, I had worries about the condition of my property, financially getting into debt, making attempts to recover what funds we lost to the builder who let me down, and being able to support my family: my wife, who is a part-time primary school teacher, and three young children.

And these personal worries were all compounded with work stress, and the emotional toll of client scenarios, which I know many of us have to face on a weekly basis because of the nature of our work.

I recall realising that I was under a lot of pressure at work in November 2022. This was mainly caused by one client, but my mindset at the time was – and has always been, as I think my colleagues will attest – that I would manage to get through it and then be able to enjoy my Christmas break, recharge and start again in the New Year. However, I found myself getting into a situation from November through to the start of January 2023, where I was working at such an unsustainable level, and not putting my health first, that I put unreasonable strain on my physical, emotional and mental health.

I also stopped doing some of the things that had always helped me find my own “downtime”, in particular I stopped doing physical exercise and going to the gym. This wasn’t through choice – unfortunately due to an injury in the second half of 2022, my visits to the gym were no longer possible, even though previously the gym had been an important part of my weekly routine. During the working week, two or three times a week, I would get up early in the morning to go to the gym before either heading to the office or working from home. After I stopped going to the gym, because I felt under a great deal of pressure dealing with a difficult client who was taking up much of my time, I started working from 7am, sometimes earlier, every morning during the working week. This then slipped into a pattern of also working late into the evening, meaning I was working 12 or 13 hour shifts each day. My work then started creeping into my weekends and with the guilt of not spending quality time with my children, I would get up in the early hours of the morning at the weekend to do a couple of hours before the children woke up and then do a couple more hours when they went to bed. This pattern probably meant I was on average getting six hours sleep a night, but sometimes less because I was struggling to get to sleep.

The pattern I unintentionally slipped into gradually became the norm, even though I had only expected it to be a short-term arrangement to help me get through a particular period. It was not a healthy way to live my life through November and December 2022, working seven days a week without properly having any break to rest and do the things that I enjoyed.

Looking back, it is very apparent to me that my priorities were misplaced and I wasn’t putting my own wellbeing at the top, or even near the top, of my list of priorities. And this is the crucial point – if you do not look after yourself and ensure that you are OK, how can you look after anybody else, whether that is your family, your clients, and supporting your colleagues?

As I continued to work in this manner during December 2022, I remember feeling tired, but again thinking to myself it was only a few more weeks until the Christmas holidays. I remember getting to the Christmas holidays and being so relieved that work finished that I got emotional. I did not have the energy to deal any further with the various problems I was facing and I just wanted to switch off for a few days. Between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, I spent time with the maternal and paternal family and, unusually, on Christmas Day, I slept on three separate occasions – this may sound like nothing particularly extraordinary, but it is just something I have never done before and looking back I believe I was just physically and mentally exhausted. Both the maternal and paternal family said to me that with hindsight during this holiday period, I was distant and not my usual bubbly self, and they wished they had said something at the time to check I was okay.

I then worked one day between Christmas and New Year as planned – standard procedure for us at the firm and to support each other with workloads etc. However, I ended up working for a couple of hours every day from the 28th into the New Year up to 3 January 2023, when I returned to work. Now, my normal experience after the Christmas holidays, as I am sure is the case for you, is to feel refreshed returning to work. I remember going back to work on the first day feeling exhausted and unwell, as had been the case for a couple of weeks. At the time, I thought that I was simply unwell with a “bug” and that this would pass.

I managed to work through the first few days in January, but I remember on the Thursday of that week I was starting to struggle dealing with even the simplest of tasks such as processing the contents of a letter received from another party and deciding strategic next steps. Then on Friday 6 January, I woke up, got ready for work, and made my way to the office but my mind was just telling me I can’t do this anymore. It felt like someone had just turned off a light switch in my brain. When I got to the office, I explained to my line manager that I did not feel well, assuming I was just physically ill and I expected to be off work for one day and return on Monday. That Friday, rather than resting and switching off from work, which I found difficult, I kept checking my work phone and even a couple of times went on the work laptop to see what was going on.

By the next day, my condition got worse. I could not stop thinking about work, I was very negative about myself, felt numb and felt disconnected from reality. Most importantly, for the first time, I started to think something was seriously wrong as I found myself having no feelings towards my own children. I found this sense of emptiness very scary and in that instant, it made me consider that I was suffering mentally and/or emotionally, as opposed to just my physical health. I remember messaging my mum, who knew I had been off the day before, and I must have messaged her with some level of concern because she told me her and my dad were going to come over just to see how I was. When they arrived at the door, I got upset and said to them I just do not feel right. I knew I needed to speak to my colleagues and in particular a senior member of the team – from the outset they were totally supportive and we agreed I would take a week off from work and arrange an appointment with my GP.

Given how I was, my family and I agreed I would stay with my parents for the remainder of the weekend just to give myself some space to recover. Yet, I felt like my health deteriorated and by Monday morning, I called the GP surgery and, again, got upset on the phone. I recall saying to the receptionist, “I think I am having a mental breakdown.” She managed to book me an appointment that morning, for double the normal allocated time. I spoke to my GP, accompanied by my dad, and I had written down on a piece of paper what I had been experiencing the past few weeks. I still have that piece of paper in my possession, which said the following:

  • Sweating at night.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Feeling worried/anxious about work.
  • Working long hours.
  • Gagging without being sick.
  • Dehydrated.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Constantly tired.
  • Coughing.
  • Unable to concentrate.
  • Aching/soreness.
  • Palpitations.
  • Headaches.
  • Distant.
  • Lack of sleep.

My GP mentioned to me that in the ten minutes I spoke to him, I discussed work more than anything else. His diagnosis was I had suffered burnout. He reassured me that I was not the first person to come to him in the condition I was in, and he had in fact seen people in a much worst state than myself. My GP commented that the three professional sectors from which he commonly sees people come to him suffering from burnout are the NHS, the financial sector, and legal profession. He signed me off from work for an initial four weeks.

As I said above, my employers were fully supportive and wanted me to take as much time off as possible to get back to full health. They pointed me in the direction of all the various methods of support that they had in place for all employees (we do in fact have qualified Mental Health First Aiders as well as access to a bespoke support scheme) and I made use of the firm’s Employee Support Scheme, via which I was able to speak to a health care professional at BUPA within 24 hours. After speaking with them, it was their view I was also suffering with stress, anxiety and depression. I got referred to a local counsellor who had expertise in supporting those with mental health conditions. I had several sessions with the counsellor which I found extremely useful in understanding how I got into the situation that I did, gaining a better understanding of what my body was trying to tell me up to the point I became seriously unwell, and how to better protect myself in the future.

I further contacted the legal mental health and wellbeing charity LawCare, who offered me support by referring me to one of their “buddies”, another lawyer, whose name was not disclosed to me, but had in the past been through a similar experience to myself. Being able to speak with somebody who had an idea of what I was experiencing at that moment of vulnerability was incredibly important to me as it gave me the confidence that I would need to be able to get through this.

Now, it was not the case that, immediately after being signed off from work, I made an instant recovery. In fact, my health got worse before it got better. I decided to stay with my parents for the first week I was off sick because quite frankly, I was not capable of looking after myself. I also wanted to protect my family from seeing how I was. It is difficult to explain in words what it is like to suffer with a mental illness, but I can assure you it is an experience you would never want yourself, or anybody else, to go through. The complete breakdown in my mental health was the most distressing and painful experience I have ever gone through in my life. To try and highlight my mindset/behaviour during those first couple of weeks, I given a couple of examples of my behaviour below:

  1. One afternoon, I went out with my parents to meet friends of theirs for a Sunday roast. After having the main meal, I suddenly felt quite anxious and did not feel like I wanted to be around anybody. I asked to be excused from the table just so I could go outside for a few minutes. My mum and dad came out to check I was OK and, again, I got upset and asked to be taken back to their home. We left abruptly because of the state I was in.
  2. I was asked by my mum to buy a pack of grapes from a supermarket after I went into town with her. A task that should have taken me two minutes to complete took me thirty minutes.
  3. A couple of nights I did not sleep at all because I could not remove myself from thinking about all the negative thoughts in my mind. I remember thinking sometimes whether I had a tumor in my head because I had a constant headache, and my palpitations were so bad I was worried about having a heart attack in my sleep.
  4. My most difficult moment was in the middle of the first week when I said to my mum, “what is the point of being here”. I wish to add I did not contemplate causing harm to myself but for me to say that to somebody is difficult to look back upon. I know my mum was very worried at the time because when I said those words to her, she called my dad and asked him to come home as quickly as possible, obviously worried I was going to do something stupid.

That first week off was hard and it must have been equally very difficult for my parents watching me and seeing how I was behaving. During my second week off I managed to return home and, like the first week, there were difficult days. I found doing nothing and trying to relax was the worst thing I could do because all I could think about was the negativity that had caused me to feel this way. Once I started completing tasks and getting outside, I felt better in myself – by being proactive I was taking my mind off those negative thoughts that contributed to me becoming ill in the first place. I started going back to the gym, completing the food shopping, catching up with friends who I had not seen in a long time, dealing with some of the repairs that need resolving at home, and I found Lego very therapeutic!

Marc (centre) with his colleagues at Raydens: Sebastian Carberry (left) and Emily Cannell (right)

By the third week, it was just like that light switch had come back on in my brain when I woke up one morning and felt like myself again. Gradually I was making progress on a day-by-day basis, which was supported by my buddy at LawCare and the counsellor. Both my buddy and counsellor commented on how different my behaviour and attitude were compared to when they first met me. I took things slowly and although my employers had offered me even more time off work to recover if I wanted and needed it, I managed to return to work full-time after one month, as planned. I only increased my workload gradually – my colleagues had picked up all my cases for me and given them their full attention, so it meant a gradual reintroduction to my cases over a three-week period was manageable.

The call for action

Given my involvement in wellbeing since 2018, via Resolution through the YRes National Committee and now Wellbeing Committee, I never truly thought my own health could be at risk and I think, for that reason, I got complacent. I was so focused on helping others, whether that was other Resolution members, my family, or clients, that I failed to put my health first. I ignored the warning signs from my body and I think I probably hid the symptoms and signs so comprehensively that it was difficult for family and friends to pick up on the warning signals. I didn’t even flag with my colleagues that the issues I was trying to cope with were so comprehensive even though they did ask questions. It is very difficult for those around you to pick up that something is wrong when you are struggling yourself to realise and acknowledge it. It’s perfectly possible to get to the stage, as I did, of being incapable of working and carrying out everyday tasks we take for granted.

Because of being vocal and proactive over the last six years about wellbeing, I have spoken to so many family justice professionals telling me about their own experiences with mental health, some of which have included individuals like me having to take a break from the work because it all became too much. A couple of people have just left the profession altogether. Suffering illness whether it is physical, emotional and/or mental can happen to anybody. Yet what I have learned is that it doesn’t matter how junior or how experienced you are, what your background is, what work you do, we are all vulnerable to being physically unwell and we can equally be as vulnerable to being emotionally/mentally unwell too. It could have been very easy, like many others before me, to keep what I went through private, but I wanted to turn something negative I went through into a positive.

It will have been the case, since I returned to work, that others will have suffered harm to their health contributed by the nature of our work. Others will suffer a similar fate in the future and there may be people even reading this article who are struggling right now. I want people to know that if they have been unwell in the past caused by their work, that they are not alone and I want people who have not suffered with their mental health to understand how serious this issue is, how dangerous it can be, and that we as a collective group must be proactive and not reactive in tackling this issue.

When I attended the YRes National Conference towards the end of 2023 with two other individuals in our profession who faced challenges with their wellbeing, the feedback we received from those in attendance was incredible. What really struck us was the volume of direct feedback we received from members who have in the past or were presently struggling with their wellbeing. Quite frankly, there are members of our profession, and this is not just junior professionals, who are fed up with the lack of action being taken to change the culture to better protect us from suffering harm. I was fortunate in that I had a family that rallied and was able to help me personally, and professionally I was extremely glad to work in a firm that takes mental wellbeing very seriously and that I had very supportive colleagues who helped me navigate the professional issues that I needed to deal with.

Every day we are being exposed to traumatic incidents within our job when becoming involved in the personal lives of our clients, who themselves are really struggling, alongside the pressures that come from the job – whether that is internally, managing the family justice system, engaging with other family justice professionals or the advancements in technology meaning instant responses can be expected. For many years, we have allowed our job to negatively impact on our health and infringe our personal lives. I spoke to two professionals at the Lexis Nexis family law awards last year, in separate conversations, and they each said to me that people they knew who worked within the NHS had expressed surprise at what they understood to be a lack of therapeutic/psychological support available to professionals working in the legal sector. Now this view is obviously anecdotal, and of course does not necessarily reflect the reality for everyone, however it is something we should take on board.

Back during Covid in 2020, the subject of wellbeing and our mental health came to the forefront, and I think became a buzzword. Now in 2024, has anything significantly changed? Yes, many of us now can spend some of our time working from home, but has the culture changed in making sure we have a better work/life balance, the right measures and support in place to protect us from harm? Albeit I did receive a lot of support from my firm, I still think more generally the answer is no, and given some of the conversations I have had with individuals in the past year, I think some would argue that the way we work in protecting our wellbeing is worse now than it was pre-Covid.

And if you don’t think wellbeing is an important issue, then one needs to only look back at recent surveys carried out by various organisations, which speak for themselves.


Resolution Wellbeing Survey 2020

  • 95% say they regularly work more hours than they are contracted for, with as many as 57% clocking up more than eight extra hours – an additional working day each week.
  • 81% are unable, or only sometimes able, to take regular breaks.
  • 88% need to work during leave, usually or sometimes.
  • 89% have experienced negative wellbeing issues as a result of their work.
  • 64% usually or always feel fatigued during the working day.
  • 25% are considering leaving the legal profession.

The LawCare Life in the Law survey September 2020

  • 69% experienced mental ill health in the previous 12 months.
  • Over 60% suffered from anxiety often, very often or all the time.
  • Nearly 32% said their job put a strain on their personal relationships often, very often or all the time.
  • 65% said they needed to check emails outside regular working hours just to keep on top of their work.
  • 28% said work required them to be available 24/7.

My thoughts on the way ahead

The idea that 1 in 4 of us have contemplated walking away highlights there is a serious problem. We as a profession are losing talented individuals because of our refusal to change and adapt. There are some isolated groups/individuals, including Resolution’s Wellbeing Committee, which are trying to bring about real change, but unless we all individually and collectively take responsibility to tackle this issue, nothing will change. There is nothing to stop you individually taking steps to better protect your health, for organisations to adopt the necessary policies/procedures and for people to work together in their region to make real change happen. Nationally, all key stakeholders across the family justice system need to come together to adopt a joined-up strategy on how to move forward together with one voice. If some stakeholders/individuals continue to work in individual silos, change won’t come. There is no reason why we in family law can’t take the lead in the legal profession to show what can be achieved with determination and purpose – it certainly was the case in my experience that team work and being able to adapt rapidly and support a colleague in difficulty made all the difference.

We can continue to make a real difference to the lives of thousands of families across the country on a yearly basis and at the same time ensure that we can do so in a manner that is safe and does not negatively impact on our health and wellbeing, which presently it does for many on a continuous basis.

It is very easy to talk about the importance of wellbeing as it is with many other subjects, but actions speak louder than words. We should make 2024 a real catalyst for change. Let’s do this for your colleagues, your loved ones and most importantly for yourself before it is too late.

Finally, if you are struggling right now, do not stay quiet. Make sure you receive the help and support you need, whether that is internally or externally. Your wellbeing comes first.

Places to go for help