The Agony Aunt: How do we stop unpredictable working hours impacting on mental health?

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 0800 2796888

Samaritans 116 123