The increasing prominence of this issue reflects what appears to be another step in the modernisation of family law: it is by now beyond question that the mental health and wellbeing of everyone involved in the family justice system is something that needs direct and specific attention. The President was not wrong to suggest that in a system increasingly under the strain of ongoing underfunding it will in fact be the people propping it up, rather than the system itself, that will crumble first.
Stress and pressure are not unique to family lawyers, of course, but there are ways in which family law in particular can be difficult, and there are risks to which family lawyers are more than usually exposed.
In this article we start with a brief look at the concept of wellbeing and the evidence demonstrating its importance, before moving on to focus on the ways in which family law can challenge our sense of wellbeing, as well as ways to promote best practice both at a personal and organisational level. Finally, we will signpost some further resources.
What is wellbeing?
There is no universal definition of the concept but a useful one for present purposes is that wellbeing is “being as physically fit as you can be, enjoying life and work, being connected to positive others and retaining an ability to both keep perspective about, and to recover from, difficult times”.
Does wellbeing matter?
In short, yes. Wellbeing matters not only from an internal personal perspective but from an organisational point of view. Improved wellbeing benefits performance and as such the project to improve wellbeing is a clear win-win.
The Department for Business Innovation & Skills’ 2014 report Does worker wellbeing affect workplace performance? had this to say about whether wellbeing is good for business: “There is a clear, positive, statistically significant relationship between the average level of job satisfaction among employees at the workplace and workplace performance.”
Improvements to wellbeing bring improved workplace performance in profitability (financial performance), labour productivity and the quality of outputs or services. The DBIS found three key mechanisms whereby wellbeing improves performance:
- By affecting employees’ cognitive abilities and processes – enabling them to think more creatively and to be more effective at problem-solving.
- Improved attitudes to work raise the propensity to be co-operative and collaborative.
- It improves physiology and general health, meaning fewer days lost to illness and more energy available to use whilst at work.
The wellbeing risks of family law
Empathy and vicarious trauma
Most of us became family lawyers because we care about people. A caring nature can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Aside from death, divorce and family breakdown can be one of the most grief-stricken periods that many will face during their lifetime.
Grief can have physical effects as well as emotional or psychological consequences. Clients can and do project onto us the trauma which they are experiencing and, unlike counsellors or psychologists, who benefit from clinical supervision and the ability to debrief themselves, we can often feel as though we have to find our own pathway through the fog at the end of a long day. The brain’s fight or flight response cannot clearly differentiate between one’s own lived experiences and others’ reported experiences to which one connects empathetically, meaning that in a real sense the stories family law professionals engage with at work have a direct traumatic impact.
Professional versus personal
Some family lawyers struggle to maintain barriers between work and their personal lives. Clients can now access us via our mobiles, through text, email and sometimes even social media, and saying no can prove difficult, especially when the stakes are high. It’s easy to feel as though a person’s future or their children’s future is in your hands and so the temptation is to give them everything.
The downside to that can be that there is nothing left for you and your own family. It is important to find a professional persona, one that enables a suitable distance to be kept from the material we deal with and that enables work to be left “at work” as much as possible, so that it does not impose too much on the rest of one’s life.
Many family practitioners will have the same billable hours or financial targets as their commercial counterparts, yet they will be paid less, and have a significantly higher volume of clients with more complex emotional needs who are often more demanding.
We also have the added burden of needing clients to pay our fees at a time when the financial resources of one household are suddenly being expected to meet the needs of two. The absence of legal aid has made matters worse.
A failing court system
Clients become increasingly frustrated with the delay and uncertainty that comes with being a court user. They cannot direct their frustration towards the system itself in most cases, and so that frustration is directed towards us.
We want their experience of working with us to be seamless – as quick and painless as it can be. Many of us will be perfectionists who simply want to do a good job. That can feel impossible when the tools with which we are expected to work are so blunt, leading to us being doubly frustrated.
A resource for members of YRes included in the membership fee is the 1-2-1 mentoring scheme, pairing you with a trained senior practitioner who can be a source of support on all sorts of matters including practice and time management, which are of course vital for wellbeing.
Employee Assistance Programmes
A number of providers offer a policy that covers a whole organisation and gives all employees free, confidential access to therapeutic support
Wellbeing at the Bar
Personal and organisational changes you can make
- Plan for dealing with difficult content, for example diarise some time to rest and recharge after a difficult client conference or after watching a child abuse interview video.
- Protect yourself and your employees, for example by developing a formal wellbeing policy, buying into an Employee Assistance Programme scheme, and setting up a network of mentoring.
- Connect and work with other people – it is easy to underestimate the value of simply talking to others and sharing the load (including talking about wellbeing itself and having it as an ongoing part of the workplace dialogue).
- Get to know yourself and what works for you – give yourself permission to relax and be kind to yourself.
- Develop a professional persona and try to switch off – for example, a tip for keeping communication with clients within office hours is to use a delayed delivery function.
- Reward yourself and your employees.
David is National YRes Chair, and Matthew a member of the YRes National Committee