The Agony Aunt: How Do We Stop Unpredictable Working Hours Impacting on Mental Health?

Long hours, presenteeism and constant connectivity mean the working day is becoming increasingly more protracted and prolonged, and unpredictable working hours are having a real impact on lawyers’ wellbeing. Boundaries and balance must be maintained to protect our mental health. The Agony Aunt looks at these issues for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Work is the number one cause of stress and mental health issues 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.

How Unpredictable Working Hours Impact on Mental Health

Our bodies and minds need to be regulated to stay healthy. From babyhood, we are kept in a routine to keep us happy and healthy. We need to eat, sleep and exercise regularly and be exposed to adequate daylight. If we experience deprivation and disruption in these routines our energy levels and emotions are adversely affected. Add to this extended periods of stress and activities that require intense focus, concentration and emotional investment, and our mental and physical well-being really begins to suffer. In order to perform in our jobs, we need to be in good condition as human beings, and that starts with breaking bad habits.

And make no mistake – constant long, unpredictable working hours are indeed a bad habit. Workplace culture in the law has long encouraged this pattern of work, but the idea that long hours are synonymous with drive and dedication is having a detrimental effect on talented lawyers everywhere. It is no longer a means to an end, it is a cycle where no-one is able to work ‘enough’ hours in the day.

Suffering in Silence

There is a lingering stigma attached to work-related mental health. 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 ‘pressures of the job’. This is particularly pertinent to professions such as the law, finance, media etc. Working in these fields comes with a certain expectation that long and erratic working hours are a feature of the job, so we put aside our needs as humans being in order to be seen as succeeding in our chosen field. And it’s not just pressure created by outside demands – we are all guilty of self-imposed pressure and the need to appear constantly busy and productive, even to our own friendship circles. However, without meeting our basic needs as individuals, we cannot hope to thrive in our professions, and it can lead to burnout, breakdown and a myriad of mental and physical health issues long term.

Mobile Working – A Blessing and a Curse

Constant connectivity is a modern issue that has on one hand has opened up more flexible working options, but on the other has increased the pressure to continue working outside of the office setting. Being always on, with constant contact and expectations of instant reply from directors and clients at all hours of the day, seven days a week means that while your body may be free from the office, your mind is spending even more time there.

How to Regain Control Over Unpredictable Working Hours

Schedule contact time – 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.

Be time smart – Concentrate on putting more into each hour, rather than putting in more hours in the working day. Delegate what can be delegated. No one has anything to prove to anyone else by burning themselves out with hours and hours of office time – remember your standard of 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.

Communicate clearly and regularly – Here 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.

Look out for signs of stress around you – Keep a check on how you are feeling, but also look out for your colleagues and friends in similar positions. Ask if they are coping OK with their workload. Are they irritable? Distant? Not their usual self? It could be an opportunity for both of you to share how you are feeling and lead to an important first step in tackling the problem.

Help Resources

If you don’t feel you are ready to confide in those around you, here are some professional organisations that can help.

Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. We, lawyers, stick out for each other.