Making Work, Work

If you work from home permanently or on a frequent basis, you’ll recognise some of the negative feelings that can creep up on you: the sense of isolation and feeling detached from the office, insecurity about your position with a company or with clients from the lack of face to face contact, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life. Many of our legal consultants at Obelisk Support work from home and may be familiar with these thoughts. It is so important to break this cycle and step out of your bubble. With personal experience, here are my tips for protecting your mental health when working from home.

Create a Comfortable and Protected Workspace

A home office is a necessity. Even if you don’t have space for a room to yourself, making a dedicated and undisturbed work zone is so important – for example, my workspace is one half of the dining room table. I can close the doors for quiet time and for calls and interviews, and I have easy-to-move storage trays for paperwork when the entire table is needed for dinners, my daughter’s homework or various arts and craft projects. Plus if you have regular video calls you’re not scrambling to find a tidy, professional looking space to beam in from each time…

That aside, if you’re finding it hard to concentrate or get motivated, the advantage of working from home is that you can move around freely, without waiting for a meeting room or comfortable chair to become available! Sometimes your comfortable sofa is a better place to jot down ideas for a new project, or you can grab the opportunity for some fresh air outside while on a call.

Declutter Your Home Environment

Though I wouldn’t claim to be a naturally tidy person, since working from home I have become acutely aware of how clutter affects my mental health and concentration. This can be even more difficult to manage when you share your living space with others, particularly with children or if you live with someone who is a natural hoarder.

There are some great tips for sorting your home working space here, but if you find that clutter elsewhere in the home is affecting your mood or encroaching on your space, discuss having a good clear out of your whole living environment. Many people swear by Marie Kondo’s method, and though you might find some of the ideas extreme, it’s a good starting point for better ways to organise your living space.

Use Separate Devices for Work and Leisure Screen Time

Wherever possible, keep your work-related digital communications and documents on dedicated work devices, so they are not popping up in notifications or are sat staring at you on your desktop when you are using those devices during your leisure time. Tracking cookies could also affect your search or social media history with mixed use devices, resulting in ‘tainted’ results. It might seem like unnecessary hassle, but having a dedicated work mobile and personal mobile will help you maintain the boundaries between work and leisure, which so often get blurred when working from home. Plus, it is also easier to keep track of usage for tax purposes if you are self employed – which will also help keep the stress levels down!

Take at Least One Screen-Free Break Each Day

This is important in any work environment, but especially so at home where the temptation of TV and streaming services are at your fingertips. Step away from the computer and do something that requires a different type of concentration. A bit of light tidying in the home, a walk or a run, even simply going for a drive requires a change in thought process and engages different reactions allowing your other faculties to recharge. Anything that gets you up and stretching and out of the house is preferable.

Some fitness devices like FitBit activity trackers remind you to get up every hour and walk at least 250 steps, motivating you to be active during long periods of physical inactivity.

Connect Frequently With Your Communities

We are a social species, and even those of us who are comfortable in our own company need to connect with other people from time to time. Working from home can feel like you are isolated from the core workplace community. Try to ensure that your communication with colleagues/clients and associates is not always urgent and task-focused – sharing ideas, interesting relevant articles you’ve come across helps keeps sense of community and shared inspiration.

For a confidence boost, try getting involved with local community organisations that interest you, to maintain a sense of connection outside of the home. If you are finding that working at home is really taking its toll, talk to friends and family about your feelings. This may then give you the courage to share your feelings with work associates or other support networks who can offer practical help and understanding.

Use Shared Workspaces

A change is as good as a rest, so they say. If you are experiencing a creeping sense of cabin fever, it may be time to make regular use of shared workspaces in your local area for a change of environment. Workspaces are better than working from a coffee shop as they are set up with the facilities and quiet room you need to concentrate and be productive. Public libraries can also offer good working environments. Regarding coffee houses, I am also reluctant to spend much time working in them as it is important to not let places of leisure and relaxation become places of work. If you don’t have a suitable workspace nearby, perhaps enquire with people you know about any spare space they might know or be in possession of.

Remember the Benefits of Working from Home

It’s all too easy to fall out of love with working from home when we slip into bad habits, but try to remember the opportunities and freedoms it gives you. Here are just some of the advantages to remind you why you are one of lucky ones:

  • You’re in charge – you are free to use your home as you wish, there’s no need to ask for permission or to check schedules for meeting rooms
  • You have no commute – you can work that little bit longer and still be present for bedtimes and homework
  • You create a schedule to suit you – as you get into a rhythm you can choose the hours and day structure that suits your energy and peak productivity times.
  • You have access to enjoyable home projects – on your break, you can spend a little time on those other projects you can’t take into the office – that painting you want to finish, the DIY, gardening or craft project that’s been on the to do list for months, there is more you can achieve when work and home are in the same place. Just try to keep them separate and distinct.

Support Networks for Home Workers

If you feel you need additional support and someone to talk to while working from home, online support groups can be a lifeline. Here are just a few examples of organisations you can contact and connect with, digitally and in person:

  • Meetup.com is a place where you can find local and global support groups and events for people working from home.
  • Aoife Lee Parent Support (Ireland) runs corporate talks for working parents.
  • The Samaritans are not just there for people in deep crisis – they campaign for better mental health in society including in the workplace and are always available on 116 123 to listen when you need to talk it out, whatever the circumstance.
  • Facebook features an amazing number of professional-minded groups, some with regional features. Most are closed groups that require admin approval and feature moderated discussions.
  • LinkedIn is another great place to look for professional groups. Some require admin approval and proof on your LinkedIn profile that your area of expertise or professional history are relevant to the group.

However good these networks and groups are, remember to get out of your house and have a fulfilling social life. What’s the point of working otherwise?

 

 

 

 

Making Work, Work

Guest post by Elizabeth Rimmer, Chief Executive of LawCare

We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. 

Mental health issues range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life, to serious long-term conditions. It can be easy to dismiss mental health problems as something that happen to other people, but research shows that 1 in 4 of us will experience them each year. And yes, the legal community is no exception.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’.

This definition places wellbeing at its heart.

So…

What Do We Mean by Wellbeing?

It means different things to different people but, it’s about how we feel, how we think, our relationships, and how we find meaning and purpose in our lives.

About 50% of our wellbeing is influenced by our genes, 10% is about our upbringing and external circumstances such as our health, work or financial situation, but crucially about 40% is influenced by our choices and attitudes – how we approach relationships, our values and our sense of purpose.

This means we can take positive steps to influence our wellbeing.  There has been considerable research into the science of wellbeing and this gives us an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices to increase wellbeing in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

How to Improve Your Wellbeing

There are five simple steps we can take to improve our wellbeing:

  • Connect –  with the people around us, our  family, friends, colleagues
  • Be active – finding time for exercise or enjoyable hobbies
  • Keep learning – new skills can boost confidence
  • Give to others – just a simple kind word to someone or volunteering your time  can improve your wellbeing
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you

In a professional context, wellbeing matters because it brings a number of benefits: greater self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, positive relationships with colleagues, better physical and mental health, greater motivation, greater creativity, and more productive work.

Wellbeing & Lawyers

It is known from research in the USA that lawyers have higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress compared to other professions. Why is this? It’s not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poorer wellbeing than other people, there is something about the about the culture and practice of law that can have an impact. It is the culture of the well-known poor work/life balance, the long hours and presenteeism, the competitive environment, the fear of failure and the driven and perfectionist personalities that can be drawn to law. All of this contributes to an environment that can make some people more vulnerable to mental health concerns.

Lawyers are expected to cope with the demands of the job, and fear that not coping will be seen as a sign of weakness. They can find it difficult to acknowledge that they may need support and talk openly about mental health in the workplace.

At LawCare, the charity that supports and promotes mental health and wellbeing throughout the legal community in the UK, we know that talking is an important first step in changing the way we think and act about mental health. We want to get the legal community talking about mental health.

Since we were founded in 1997 we have helped thousands of people in the legal community manage the day to day pressures of working in the law. But we want to support lawyers to do more than just survive in the legal workplace we want them to thrive.

Wellbeing & Resilience

Resilience is an important factor in the workplace. Resilience is the ability to resist or bounce back from adversity, and in any workplace there will be people who thrive on challenges and difficulties, while others will find it hard to cope with unexpected change or problems. If someone finds it hard to forge ahead when things go wrong, the good news is that we can all learn how to develop our resilience.

Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in times of constant change. Most importantly, they expect to bounce back, and feel confident that they will. That expectation is closely linked to a general sense of optimism, and finding the positive aspects in most situations is a skill that can be evolved. The right mental attitude to cope, and even flourish, when the going gets tough, can be developed.

10 Tips to Build Resilience:

  • Learn to see challenges, mistakes and failures as valuable learning experiences
  • Give yoursef a pat on the back when things go well. Be kind and forgive ourselves when things go wrong
  • Don’t give in to negative thoughts. Challenge them, and ask whether they are true or realistic
  • Use humour to defuse and downplay difficulties. We can laugh at ourselves and situations
  • Be flexible. Recognise that nothing stays the same, especially in the workplace
  • Take care of physical and mental health. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. When our physical self is in good shape, we are less fragile
  • Take time off work, use holiday entitlements and take breaks during the working day
  • Recognise that a bad situation is usually temporary
  • Build a support network. Make time for friends and family who offer encouragement and strength. Consult supportive work colleagues
  • Don’t extrapolate one bad situation into another unrelated situation. We can’t be good at everything; recognise areas of strength

Attitude and perspective are fundamental to building resilience. Paying attention to strengths and how to develop them, learning to accept that things won’t always go well, and focusing on what is working rather than what’s not, are all key.

How Things Can Change

We need to come together as a legal community to raise awareness and understanding of mental health, in order to create healthier and more supportive working environments for lawyers. Although attitudes are changing, the fact remains that many people feel unable to raise mental health problems at work, and we need to do something about this.

Organisations are only as strong as their people and a healthy and productive workforce where staff feel valued and supported, will be more committed to the organisation’s goals and perform better in their jobs. Mental health matters.  

About LawCare

LawCare is the charity that supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community throughout the UK and Ireland. Our support spans the entire legal life – from student to training, through to practice and retirement.

We understand life in the law. If people need someone to talk to, they can call us on our free, independent, and confidential helpline. Calls are answered by trained staff and volunteers, all of whom have experience of working in the legal sector.  We offer empathetic support for work, emotional, health and financial problems, and we signpost callers to specialist support where appropriate. Call us on 0800 279 6888 365 days a year, or visit our website www.lawcare.org.uk.

About Elizabeth Rimmer

Elizabeth Rimmer started her working life as a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence. She has been managing and developing charities in the mental health sector for over fifteen years, and joined LawCare as Chief Executive in 2014.

Making Work, Work

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.