Family & Work

We know from our interview with neuroscientist Geoff Bird that sleep is one of the keys to high performance. He discusses the effect on work and personal life that are guaranteed to disturb those lawyers who pride themselves on working into the small hours. Talks on sleep, however, are a sign that the legal sector, notorious for long and unsocial hours, is facing up to questions of mental wellbeing.

In 2013 The Sleep Council surveyed over 5000 adults in the UK and found that 70% sleep for less than seven hours a night with more than a quarter experiencing poor quality sleep on a regular basis. By 2017, The Sleep Council found that those figures had increased further, with more than a third now reporting poor quality sleep on a regular basis.

So, whether you are sleeping poorly on a regular or occasional basis, we could all stand to increase the amount and quality of sleep to increase performance. 

Here are some practical tips:

Treat the issue not the symptoms

The first thing to look at, says Dr Lindsay Browning, sleep expert at Trouble Sleeping, is whether your issues stem from a medical problem. This may be undiagnosed, so it is important to consider whether lack of sleep is the problem or the symptom.

There is diagnostic criteria for insomnia (such as regularly over a period of several months being awake for more than 30 minutes, taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep or being awake more than 30 minutes before you would usually get up). While the NHS says that better sleeping habits will improve most cases, it is still worth considering whether insomnia is being caused by a medical issue such as depression, sleep apnoea (where you stop breathing which wakes you up), a bad back or perhaps stress or trauma. 

It may also be worth considering requesting a blood test, as insomnia can be a symptom of magnesium deficiency.

Can you help your natural cycles?

To sleep, we need to be relaxed and calm. The hormones serotonin, oxytocin and melatonin are essential to our daily cycle, or circadian rhythm (our internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle that repeats roughly every 24 hours).

We sleep in cycles and wake between them and have to learn to link the cycles. Most people will be unaware of the waking between the cycles as we only remember them once we’ve been awake for two minutes or more.

Melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle) is like a starter pistol, Dr Browning says. A surge of melatonin will tell your body that it is ready to go to sleep. Our bodies are designed such that the surge will come around 8/10 hours after we’ve received the max dose of sunshine. Most people produce all the melatonin they need, so unless you are jetlagged taking additional melatonin will not help.

Our best sleeping conditions are when it is dark and not too hot. 16-18C is ideal. Body temperature peaks in the evening and drops as we sleep. Professor Geoff Bird told us that most people’s bedrooms are too light and too warm for good sleep.

Try the following and see whether it helps:

  • Get outside at lunchtime. If we are in an office all day we need to stop our bodies from getting out of sync. 
  • If you can’t get outside, try a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lightbox – but only use it between 11am-1pm. 
  • Make your bedroom darker and colder.
  • Encourage your body temperature to rise and then drop with a warm bath.
  • Dr Browning suggests ensuring you are not hungry before bed, recommending oat biscuits, porridge or warm milk. Milk and milk products have the added benefit that they contain the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan.

Is something or someone else keeping you awake? 

For some, sleep is elusive. For others, part of the issue is either things keeping us awake, or waking us up during the night. Is there anything you can do to reduce the impact of the following?

Screens

Smartphones, TV, computer games; they are all designed to be addictive and absorbing, excellent at keeping the mind awake, reducing the amount of time we sleep or preventing us from dropping off at all.

Ariana Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post and author of the book The Sleep Revolution: transforming your life one night at a time suggests no electronic devices starting 30 minutes before bedtime and even advocates relocating your charging station to another room.

“I started setting ground rules, such as turning off my devices,” says Huffington on how she turned around her sleep habits.

Caring responsibilities – children & elderly relatives

Is there anything you can do about children that are waking you up at night? Young babies and children, of course, do just wake up but things to consider if you have school-aged children include:

  • The amount of sleep a school-aged child needs peaks at 9/10 years old. 6-13-year-olds need 9-11 hours, 3-5-year-olds need 10-13. Teenagers are of course a different matter entirely.
  • Based on the amount of sleep they need, consider current bedtimes and rising times. Do you need to update them?
  • Look at bed habits e.g. stopping TV before sleeping, milk, routines, etc.

As we get older, we need less sleep and it is normal to wake up between cycles as the gaps get longer. We may need to accept that elderly relatives will sleep more during the day, less at night and think about ensuring we have respite time away to catch up on sleep if at all possible.

Hormone cycles and the menopause

The rising and falling levels of the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle (estrogen and progesterone) can affect the ability to fall and stay asleep, and, annoyingly influence the quality of sleep. 

Rising estrogen levels in days 1-14 can give you an energy boost but also mean worse sleep, then rising progesterone after ovulation in days 14 onwards can make you very tired. A few days before your period starts, around days 26ish of a 28-day-cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels drop rapidly and many women report trouble sleeping. 

By tracking your cycle, you should be able to predict when you need to do less and spend more time resting, which can help combat these issues.

The menopause brings hot flushes which disturb the sleep. If you are used to sleeping well the sudden problems with sleeping can be concerning. The more you worry and try to sleep, the more anxiety hormones rises which leads to more difficulty falling asleep. “Sleep is the only thing you can’t succeed at by trying harder,” says Dr Browning, which can make it very frustrating.

Other practical tips to try

  • Get rid of your fitbit and stop analysing data
  • Swap your Smartphone for an alarm clock, preferably one where you can switch off the lighted time, so you can’t lie there and watch the minutes tick past
  • See if you can change how you feel about sleep

Scientifically Dr Browning says how we feel when we wake up is only related to where in the sleep cycle we woke. After around 20 minutes, no matter how we felt when we woke, we should feel ok. However, if you tell yourself you had a bad (or good) night’s sleep, this can affect how your mind thinks you slept.

  • Drink water

Contrary to some advice, being well hydrated actually helps us sleep, says Dr Browning. Some people recommend not drinking after 3pm but Dr Browning says that “typically the need to [pass urine] won’t wake you up but when you wake up the body automatically scans the body and you realise you need the loo. It is actually usually something else that wakes you up”.

  • Reduce caffeine/alcohol in the afternoon and evening.

Caffeine has a six-hour half-life (which means half of the caffeine you consumed will still be in your body six hours later). Caffeine stops the body from being able to tell how tired it is. Alcohol is a sedative so sleep comes but is disrupted.

  • Lavender in the bath, or sprayed on your pillow
  • Meditate or journal to reduce stress/ worries which wake up the brain when you lie down to try and sleep.
  • Read or listen to calming music or whale/ocean sounds
  • Try the Sleep with Me podcast for bedtime stories for adults
  • Use the Twilight App for any essential bedtime phone use
  • Change the bed and have clean sheets and ironed pillow-cases.

Lastly, if you really cannot sleep, get up and do something useful. Do not spend hours actively trying to sleep as this is counter-productive and you will end up associating your bed with a place of stress and anxiety, perpetuating the cycle.

Do you have any other tips to share?

Note: Dr Lindsay Browning is a chartered psychologist and neuroscientist with a doctorate from the University of Oxford where she investigated the relationship between worry and insomnia. She is an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, a member of the British Sleep Society and a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Making Work, Work

As schools in the UK get ready to break up, thoughts turn to summer holidays and some well earned R&R. Or at least, they should be turning to those things. As Bloomberg law reported in 2018, lawyers are notoriously bad at taking holidays. Despite the comparatively generous allowances provided by many big law firms, less than a third of lawyers use up all of their holiday allocation, according to a study by career research company Vault. Just 31% of associates working at American law firms took all of their holiday allowance, a picture that is similar to lawyers in many other countries too. And of course, among those that do take all their holiday entitlement are those who took the work with them, both physically and psychologically, with all too many employers only happy to encourage them.

It is vital for lawyers to properly step away from work on a regular basis. A summer holiday means a chance to spend days outdoors, cut out screen time and get stuck into that book that has been on your to-read list for far too long. It is a time to focus on loved ones, and reconnect with everything that makes you ‘you’, outside of work. Taking the opportunity to spend a few days, a week or more completely out of office should be a priority, helping you to reset and return to work refreshed and motivated.

Whether you have already booked an extended stay abroad, or are thinking about some long weekends exploring what your own country has to offer, we want you to make the most of it! Here is some advice on how to enjoy stress-free summer travel in 2019.

#1 Create An Itinerary

It may seem counterintuitive – a summer holiday is meant to be a time for spontaneity and to switch off from planning and scheduling, but a properly thought out itinerary is a must. If you are heading to an unfamiliar area without an itinerary, you will end up spending too much time trying to figure out transport, location whereabouts, other details such as payment options/booking fees, before realising you haven’t brought vital items such as suitable shoes/swim gear etc with you… Knowing in advance what you want to do and what you will need to do to get there will help you to avoid typical stress points of travelling.

An itinerary also helps you to get a better sense of the needs and preferences of your travel partner, or members of the family/group you are travelling with. Working out what you want to do together ensures you have everyone’s interests covered, and brings everyone together in the excitement of what’s ahead.

For the tech lovers amongst you, there are apps that can help you create a list of activities, travel routes and packing lists. For Gmail users, Google Trips is an ideal one-stop shop to organise your travel documents and information, as well as providing customised maps showing all the landmarks, restaurants, bars and points of interest near where you are staying. Check out this list for 5 other popular trip-planning apps.

#2 …But Don’t Try to Plan the ‘Perfect’ Holiday!

It’s only natural that we make summer holiday plans with a picture painted by many idealistic travel agency adverts in our minds. However, with all the planning and organising in the world, things will always happen outside of expectations and there are effective ways to manage your mental health in the dog days of summer.

Holidays are not about trying to recreate an ideal; they are highly personal, and are inevitably affected by natural occurrences out of our own control – illness, changes in weather, even changes in mood can alter the image you had in mind. So while an itinerary is important, don’t get caught up with trying to tick off every essential you’ve read in Lonely Planet. Be realistic, go with the flow, and be prepared for things to not quite go to plan, and you won’t be needlessly disappointed.

#3 Write a Holiday Journal or Read Books

Spend a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day of your holiday writing down the agenda for the day, what you did, what you learned, what you felt etc. This will help you remember the smaller moments and capture the complete experience of the holiday beyond the photos. It will also help you appreciate the time after you return, and reading over each day will provide the inspiration you need to plan your next trip.

If writing’s not your thing, read books you don’t have time to read the rest of the time. From Oprah’s Best Beach Reads to the FT’s selection of summer books, there’s a whole world of wonderful books to escape your work life if not in person, at least in spirit.

#4 Disconnect Your Work Devices

Have we made this point (more than once) before!? It’s advice that bears repeating: to avoid slipping into being ‘on’, make sure all notifications and synced inboxes/document drives are disconnected from mobile devices before you set off. Dads Net has a helpful list of tips to take a digital detox.

If you feel it might make you more anxious to be completely switched off from work, bring a separate work device/laptop that you can lock up and leave in your apartment or hotel room, to be accessed only when you have some down time and are in the right mental place to check in and, most importantly, check out again.

#5 Set Boundaries With Your Out-of-Office 

When setting your out-of-office answer phone and email auto-reply, don’t be ambiguous: Make it clear you are on holiday and will not be checking communications. Yes you are a lawyer, so the likelihood is this won’t be strictly true, but it is better not to give the impression that you are on call in your absence. Try not to use phrases such as ‘if urgent I will…’ ‘or I will have limited access…’. This is a good guide to draft an effective out of office message.

If applicable, provide the details of the colleague who will be covering, and give the date of your return. As long as you have giving your clients prior warning of your absence and have ensured that pressing matters and impending deadlines have been dealt with/will be dealt with before you head off, there should be no need to be reachable at any time during your holiday.

Wishing you a safe, relaxing and fun summer holiday!

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

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.

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.