Wellbeing for family practitioners: a personal perspective

Cultural and systemic change are needed in family dispute resolution workplaces if we are to tackle the wellbeing crisis.

The recent survey from Resolution on practitioner wellbeing was sobering reading for anyone who works with those going through a separation. It has prompted many discussions about how wellbeing can be improved and I am heartened to hear the discussion of changes centres around systemic change rather than changes of a more lip service element.

I wanted to share my personal story. Why might I want to tell you this? Well, firstly because I can. I can because I no longer think that what happened to me was my fault and I no longer feel shame that I was unable to cope. I am also able to because running my own mediation practice means that there is no comeback on me from anyone who might think that sharing such stories is not in keeping with firm ethos. I hope that sharing it helps others to know that they are not alone.

Towards the end of 2001 I landed a job as a paralegal in the family department of a high street legal firm. I was jubilant and so excited. I was also relieved because I had wanted to be a solicitor since I was 12 years old and despite applying for 100 training contracts (yes I counted them) I had not been successful. I did not know it then, but the idea that I was not good enough had very firmly embedded itself and deep down I saw this as the last chance to make it into my chosen career. I didn’t know what the other path was but it had a large failure sign on it. I worked hard and I enjoyed learning. I enjoyed living in London, seeing friends and being independent, but by 2003 I was flagging. I felt overwhelmed by managing the work and managing life and it never occurred to me that I might be able to say “no I can’t do that” or “I can do that but not until next week”. No one told me that I could, and in my head starting to refuse to do things you were asked to was likely to result in a fast track pass to the failure path.

I cried a lot when I wasn’t at work (occasionally in the toilet at work but as there was only one ladies loo you couldn’t really be in that for long). Often I drank too much wine in the evenings to try to numb out how I felt about stuff. The next day I inevitably felt hungover and so ended up eating junk food so I also put on weight. Yet more stuff to feel like I was failing at. I felt panicky a lot of the time and walking into work and seeing a full desk of files after a day or two off made me want to walk back out again.

I was extremely fortunate in that I had good support around me. The difficulty was that I didn’t feel I could say anything at work in case they decided I couldn’t manage the job and fast tracked me to the failure path. But I did have a rather lovely boyfriend (now my husband of 16 years!) who didn’t know anything about mental health issues but on the way back from a week away in France he did very gently say to me that whilst it was natural to feel a bit sad to be leaving a good holiday, sobbing profusely in the car probably wasn’t OK and perhaps things weren’t right. I opened up to my parents and they were really supportive. I’d worried about this as having invested quite a lot in my university degree and LPC I’d assumed they’d tell me to just make a success of the career and stop being daft. My dad actually told me one day that if I wasn’t well enough to go to work I shouldn’t go, and that was a significant moment. The idea that you didn’t have to be physically sick to not be able to go to work – you could be mentally unwell too.

One day when I just felt tired and drained and that I couldn’t do it any more I didn’t go in. I stayed at home and I went to the doctor. He could not have been more lovely and supportive and talked to me about mental health issues and stress. He prescribed anti-depressants to help me climb back up, signed me off work for two weeks and told me to make a further appointment for two weeks time. I rested, I actually went to the gym and I cleaned out some cupboards. I also crucially started seeing a counsellor. She helped me to understand that it was OK to have personal boundaries and to say no to things. She also helped me to understand that I was not a failure at all. I started to see that I was still me in a difficult space and that the feelings I had were a part of anxiety and depression.

Work were also helpful. The office manager rang me and we had a chat, and the solicitor I worked closely with reached out to me privately to support me. When I came back to work there were no files on my desk at all and I will forever appreciate that. Going back to work is really only step one of the recovery, and I had to work out how to develop health habits with boundaries. There is much stigma and concern around anti-depressants in some quarters but for me they enabled me to be OK enough to make changes in my life that once embedded enabled me to not need them any more (six months later). I also had to understand my limits and that it was vital to take care of myself. I consider this self-care to be a lifelong journey: to learn how to work in a way that allows you to do your job; and still personally thrive. I still forget my limits and push a boundary because I want to help. The crucial difference now is that I know when I need to be careful. I talk about a stress scale of 0 to 10. 0 is totally zen with no stress and 10 is you’re about to blow or collapse. I didn’t know there was really a problem until I was 8. Now I know if I’m getting near 5 I need to take action. Taking action when you’re on 8 is essentially like fighting the fire that is already lit and not preventing the spark.

I know I’m not the only one this has happened to. I’ve spoken to so many practitioners that feel they are burnt out, pressured and many who have left the profession prematurely for a variety of reasons. The talk of systemic change is right but I also think we need to have a conversation about the culture around this and that’s the last piece of this article.

The rucksack of resilience

I’ve seen a lot of talk during my 20+ years as a family practitioner that’s along the lines of those that are tough enough make it. I see it now talking about mediators and have heard many experienced practitioners essentially say that those mediators that really want it will make it even in the face of huge challenges around managing a mediation practice and trying to get work. There appears to be this idea that if you can just have that rucksack with 100kg (or whatever the magic number is) of resilience or toughness in it then you’ll make it. Firstly, this does not account for the fact that many people are facing huge personal challenges and simply managing to work is a success in itself. Secondly, this attitude perpetuates the myth that if you falter you have somehow failed. Every single person on this planet has their limit of what they can cope with and whilst that limit is different for everyone, if you reach that limit you will struggle – regardless of how tough/resilient/super powered you think you are. Struggling with your mental health is a sign of how overloaded you are, not how weak you are.

The high 5 on 3 hours’ sleep and 4 double expressos

“I was up until 3am doing this work last night…”

“I haven’t had a day off in months/years…”

“Weekend? What’s a weekend?”

“Super busy! I don’t have time to eat lunch. And you?”

I’ve heard all of the above multiple times in the last 20 years and – let’s not kid ourselves here – the last few years too. We absolutely should talk about the pressures of work and where that impinges on the work/life balance. But the conversation we have around this is very important. Talking openly about workloads and how everyone is coping is a great thing to do in departmental meetings provided the emphasis is on genuinely supporting staff. I hope all my PPC consultees get the sense that I ask about how they are and what their general workloads are like rather than purely focusing on their mediation work.

If you are talking to colleagues about pulling an all-nighter and having had three double expressos before 9 a.m. as though you should have a certificate, or a banner up in your office, then you are perpetuating the idea that this behaviour is acceptable, normal and something that they should embrace if they want career progression. In fact I’d go further and say that if you are saying these things – especially to more junior colleagues – WITHOUT making it clear that you are not OK with it then you are normalising this idea that you don’t need personal boundaries with work and that it’s not only OK, but accepted, that you give so much to work.

We need to be prepared to be vulnerable – or at least human

We deal with some tough stuff in our work. I can still remember cases from 17-18 years ago that stab at my heart and will keep me awake for at least another half an hour if I think about them in the middle of the night. There’s one it took me a long time to talk to anyone about and I rarely mention it for fear of traumatising other people. We have to get better at speaking up about when stuff gets to us and to do that we need a culture around us that facilitates and normalises that. PPCs for mediators and family law supervision for lawyers is all good stuff but the change starts in all firms, in all practices and it starts with talking about what we’re finding hard. Whether that’s a particular case, a way of working or a particular problem with your work-life balance, there is such a value in being able to offload to those who understand.

I see the dark humour that still exists about clients and their problems and this coping mechanism of trying to bat away the feelings and ignore the pull of feeling vulnerable and out of your depth. I see lawyers who moan about client’s difficulties, frustrated that they are not more able to manage their own emotions more. I see practitioners who are so up to their limits in their own stress they have little or no empathy for their clients’ problems. We are not robots and the power of human connection is so important. Some of the most powerful mediations I have facilitated are where there is nothing anyone can say to make something better. My clients are brave enough to explain their grief and to put it in the room, and we all simply witness it and acknowledge it and they know that it touches me too. As humans we are hard wired to connect with each other and resisting this human-to-human connection because you fear it will overload you is surely a sign that the way you’re working is not working for you.

I’m not suggesting you cry with clients and embrace them but a little empathy for the difficult situations in which clients find themselves following a separation is a very powerful thing. Not feeling able to provide this because you are up to your own limits is something that needs to be addressed.

These are three cultural elements that I believe require changes in the way we look at the world. They don’t require funding or specialist help. They require an understanding that practitioners can become emotionally overloaded and an acknowledgement that this is affecting a large part of our industry; and it requires a willingness to learn and grow and to change attitudes. It requires an openness to acknowledge your own demons too. That’s scary stuff but together important changes could be made. This is all of our responsibilities.