Making Work, Work

Long hours, pressure, presenteeism and constant connectivity mean the working day is protracted, prolonged and unpredictable, and this is having an impact on lawyer’s wellbeing. Boundaries and balance must be maintained to protect our mental health. The Agony Aunt looks at these issues for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Unpredictable working hours are one of the less appealing hallmarks of the legal profession, but it goes beyond mere inconvenience. Such working patterns can have a real impact on lawyers’ mental health. Work is the number one cause of stress in the UK according to Samaritans, and lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, as cited by the Dave Nee Foundation. Other studies and statistics have shown that anxiety, depression and addiction are major causes for concern in the legal sector, and many legal professionals cite a lack of control over their time and schedule as a factor, ultimately leading to a lack of control in their overall lives. The issue is compounded by the lingering stigma attached to lawyers and work related mental health. People go into law knowing that long hours are often to be expected. So when unpredictable schedules take their toll on one’s mental wellbeing, sufferers feel they cannot speak up for fear of being deemed not dedicated or able to cope with the pressure.

Constant connectivity is a modern issue that on one hand has opened up more flexible working options, however sometimes this is made up for by constant contact and expectations of instant reply from directors and clients at all hours of the day, seven days a week. If you find that your devices are leaving you hounded round the clock, and you aren’t ready to switch them off completely, auto replies may be an option. A simple polite note that states your work and office hours, and that you will only respond to urgent queries outside of this time may help create a more manageable inbox.

It’s not just pressure created by others’ demands. We are all guilty of self-imposed pressure and the need to appear constantly busy and productive. No one has anything to prove to anyone else by burning themselves out – your work should speak for itself. If you are able to manage your schedule and client expectations and take on only what you can complete in the promised time allocation you will be more in control.

At Obelisk, we understand how there are competing pressures on time and this can be stressful for some working remotely, ad hoc or part-time for organisations which mainly use full time employees. The important thing is clarity of expectations for each party at the outset and good, clear communication about delivery of work and realistic timescales. We encourage consultants to make us their first point of contact to raise any queries or concerns at the outset and we can help with getting the relationship off to the best start.

The most important thing is to develop self-reflection. Keep a check on how you are feeling, if you are feeling like things are spiralling out of control, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone about what you are experiencing. Remember you are definitely not alone in your feelings and talking is the first step to solving the problem. If you don’t feel you are ready to confide in those around you, here are some organisations that can help:

Law Society Helpline 020 7320 5675

LawCare (Ireland www.lawcare.ie) 0800 2796888

Samaritans 116 123

 

Family & Work

I have been finding it difficult to switch off from work on days off in recent times, particularly due to a demanding client I currently work with. It’s taking its toll on my health and I really want to have some proper downtime with my family this Christmas. How can I make sure work won’t creep in during my break?

All of us who feel passionately about our work can find it difficult to switch off during days off. We constantly think about solutions or new ideas, and that often inevitably leads to: “I’ll just note that down”, or “I’ll send that email now so I don’t forget” and before we know it we’ve lost a couple of hours doing research and notes and checking inboxes.

It is incredibly important to make sure you take a proper break from work, particularly if you work remotely where the lines between work and the home can become all too easily blurred. There are very real consequences of burnout and an increase in sick days taken, as well as an increase in malaise and dissatisfaction with work that you never feel you have distance from. It is up to you to use your extended holiday wisely and come back refreshed and ready to get stuck in again.

It can be even more difficult to take that one eye off the email for an extended time when you are facing pressure from a particularly difficult client or colleague. As long as you have everything completed before the official holiday periods that you said you would, you are under no obligation to fulfil additional demands when you have confirmed holiday dates. If you feel you are being coerced or pressured to work over the festive season, it is time to push back. Your time is managed by you, you should be trusted to have completed what needs to be done and continue to do so after the break you are so entitled to. Be firm and politely reemphasise that your days off are as agreed and that you will not be available between those dates. Explain what you have completed and what will be picked up on your return, to reassure the client you are in full control of your workload and schedule.

Switching off – figuratively and literally

A big part of the switching off problem is our constantly connected culture. This Christmas, make it a priority to be strict with social media and technology. Switch off work laptops and computers and turn off email alerts on mobile devices. On social media, consider un-following any industry related pages temporarily to stop reminders of work and associated feelings of stress and guilt creeping up as a result. Read books and magazines rather than articles online to avoid getting distracted and sucked into a rabbit hole of information.

It’s one thing to switch off from the screen, it’s another to switch off mentally and be fully present with family, relations and friends. One thing particularly hard is to not think about what is coming on the other side; watching the days count down to the return to the routine. Keep perspective and remember you are not the only one taking a break – the vast majority, or if not all of those you work alongside are too, so not much is happening without you! Spend the eve of the holiday writing a to do list for your first day back, so you know you have everything clear in your mind what you need to do from the moment that next working day comes around – then put it away and don’t look at it again until the eve of the return!

If you are a natural planner and miss the routine, it may also help to make a series of plans for fun things to do. Even if the list consists of simple things like watching a particular movie on television together, mapping out what relaxing and fun activities you have in store will stop boredom creeping in and endangering your focus on family and friends.

With all that said, sometimes spending time with relatives comes with challenges of its own, whether it is dealing with underlying conflicts or even just simple logistics of getting to see everyone. It is important to allow your own time for relaxation. Remember not to put too much pressure on yourself to ‘please’ and feel you are responsible for everyone’s happiness. Don’t let visits become your sole responsibility either: if you’re finding it difficult to visit everyone, request they come to you or arrange a suitable half way point where you can all be waited on and escape the pressure of hosting for an afternoon. This is your holiday too and stress and obligation should not take over the joyful festivity of the season. Sit back, enjoy, let all the family do their part and share in the responsibilities – if you have children who are old enough give them tasks such as wrapping or laying tables, young people love to feel helpful and part of the preparations so you’re giving them more enjoyment too, while taking the pressure off your own shoulders.

The Agony Aunt wishes you and all our readers a happy and healthy Christmas.