Most people find looking after high value items fairly straightforward. Take a car. Most people drive with reasonable care to avoid damaging their car, and there is a mutual understanding among car drivers that they should not damage each other’s cars either. When the warning lights start flashing, careful drivers will attend to their car’s needs – refuel the tank, top up the oil, change the break fluid – and annual servicing ensures that unseen issues can be avoided before they become serious problems.
People are not cars. We are more valuable. We are always unique. But like cars, we all display warning signs that can help tell us when we are not running as we should be. But we are not always good at reading these signs in ourselves, or in others, either because we are too caught up in our lives to see them, or because, when they present themselves, we choose to read them in a way that denies their message.
In the latter case, this is often because we do not genuinely value ourselves or others as we should, or because we are afraid to accept our problems for fear of what others might think.
For those suffering from work related stress, the impacts are profound. But the effects go beyond the individual: organisations spend vast resources dealing with the fall-out from work related stress each year. The HSE estimates that in 2016, work related stress accounted for over one-third of all work related ill health cases, and nearly a half of all working days lost due to ill health – a total of 11.7 million lost working days in total.
Lawyers are at particular risk: an interview conducted by the Law Society in 2014 of over 1,500 solicitors found that over 95 per cent of lawyers suffered from the negative effects of stress, nearly one fifth of them at severe or extreme levels. A larger survey of members of the Bar published in 2014 also found high levels of stress and anxiety among the profession.
With that in mind, reading the signs and spotting potential issues before they become serious problems is an essential part of tackling well-being. So how can we do this?
The vital role of senior lawyers
First, and fundamentally, senior lawyers need to lead by example. This is both a privilege and obligation of those who have made it to the top of their tree.
The legal profession, like the legal system itself, is intensely hierarchical. Those wanting to move up the ladder usually regard emulating their seniors as the proven way to succeed. Promotion is given to those who display the time-tested qualities of a partner or Silk. Those qualities have traditionally included an ability to suffer severe stress and simply get on with it.
To any senior practitioners or partners reading this, ask yourself, how easy would it have been to speak out about work stress when you were starting out or working your way up the ranks? The answer is almost certainly that you could not, or would not, do so for fear of stigma and being seen as a failure and damaging your prospects of career progression.
Those fears are felt by junior members of the profession today just as much as they were in years past. They are not removed by the mere drafting of a well-being policy or the presence of friendly HR personnel.
If you appear not to have needed help for stress-related issues, will those who look up to you feel free to speak out? And so the destructive pattern of suffering in silence continues.
Of course, the reality is that every senior member of the profession has suffered stress and anxiety at some time or another and many still do today. They just become masters at suppressing it. But having the confidence to share your vulnerability is a sign of strength in leadership, not a weakness.
So lead by example and speak out about your past or current pressures, share advice on how to cope, and give support. In this way others will feel they have permission to seek support for themselves, and they will know that they are safe to do so.
Community spirit: does your organisation live its values?
Secondly, as far as possible, everyone needs to take responsibility for each other. By cultivating a genuine interest in each other’s well-being, we feel supported and are therefore better able to deal successfully with otherwise stressful situations when they arise, and to recover from them once they have passed.
In addition, closer relations with each other make it more likely that the early signs of stress will be spotted. Finally, by taking responsibility for each other, we accept a collective responsibility for addressing the causes of stress. So we are more likely to look beyond the individual and investigate whether there are changes within the organisation or within our own behaviour that might improve well-being for ourselves, and others, in the future.
Build a safety net
Thirdly, appropriate systems need to be in place within the work and personal realm. Mentoring and buddy systems teaming junior and senior lawyers, senior practitioners being designated as well-being officers for confidential support and advice, appropriate written guidance and procedures for those who are suffering or believe that a colleague is suffering from stress, and organisational support for education on wellbeing among both lawyers and staff are all important.
Fourthly, people need to be educated to spot the potential signs of work related stress and encouraged to raise issues of concern. Organisations such as Lawcare and Business Healthy run by the City of London provide knowledgeable support and resources. The Bar Council now has a bespoke suite of wellbeing resources accessed via its website, while the Law Society set up its well-being task force in 2016 and regularly posts articles on this topic. These initiatives deserve publicity and support, and encouragement should be given to use the resources that they offer.
When we genuinely value something, we look after it. Nothing is more valuable than ourselves and those who we share our lives with. By taking appropriate steps the chances of stress going undetected can be reduced. We can all benefit from the kindness of others.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.