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R U (really) OK? Mental health tips for Lawyers

What a strange start to 2020! Devastating bushfires, followed by torrential rain and winds (where was that when we needed it?), the rapid spread and impact of COVID-19, isolation (Netflix and Kleenex are killing it at least!) and the start of another economic crisis (bringing back haunting memories of the GFC)!

This is an awfully difficult and stressful time for everyone (business owners, parents, children, hospitality workers, tourists and so on) and the far-reaching impacts of social distancing due to the curve of COVID-19 may yet continue for another 90 days!

Having worked in law for over 10 years and now being a legal recruitment professional, I have been thinking a lot about the majority of my candidates: Lawyers. A highly regarded profession worldwide that generally attracts a six figure salary, social status and the ability to promote social justice, but how often is the associated stress and pressure of this profession considered? A pre-COVID-19 survey of 200 legal professionals across Australia and New Zealand confirmed around 85% of lawyers suffer from anxiety in the workplace and around 60% suffer from depression. What happens when an already stressful job gets further impacted by a global pandemic? What might those numbers look like now?

On a daily basis, lawyers are faced with high levels of stress (or witnessing it in their clients). They are required to meet high billing targets, work long hours sometimes with little flexibility (particularly when at a junior level), handle large caseloads and sometimes deal with difficult work cultures that can cause feelings of high pressure, anxiety and competition with colleagues.

Due to precautionary measures to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, lawyers are now also faced with all of the above whilst working from home in a makeshift office (the use of an iron board as a desk has been my favourite solution to remote working so far), with no client or colleague face-to-face interaction and for some… the pressures of dreaded home schooling and bored children!

Along with this are human day-to-day concerns: can I financially look after my family? Are my children getting enough of my time? Will my sick family member pull through? Are there enough hours in the day? I am sick but I cannot take time off. Sound familiar?

Mental health holds a special place in my heart, having lost a very close friend to suicide and witnessing the domino effect mental health has on individuals and their loved ones. One positive I have noted from COVID-19 is that there appears to be significant growth in awareness of mental health; particularly acknowledging we are at high risk of developing some form of mental illness in the current difficult environment. The more awareness and acceptance created for mental health illnesses now and in the future will encourage those suffering to speak out. The burden of keeping mental illness a secret can have further negative effects on your mental health; constantly worrying about hiding your condition and trying to maintain a façade of normality creates more pressure, worry and anxiety.

I have dedicated some of my spare time to researching what we can do to look after our mental health during COVID-19. This research was very helpful for my own state of mind and provided me with some useful reminders so I hope it helps you too.

Below are my favourite top 10 tips:

  1. Take brain breaks – if you feel yourself becoming irritable, unable to focus or overly stressed, take a break! Even short moments of reprieve are beneficial as they help reset the mind, enabling us to find the middle ground between overwhelm and denial. It is also important to keep to your office routine – we should all be taking a lunch break!
  2. Stay connected – We are fortunate to have so much technology at our fingertips enabling us to stay connected to family, friends, clients and colleagues. Use technology so that you can see each other, as we communicate best when we can see each other’s body language and facial expressions.
  3. Healthy mind, healthy body – Try to maintain a balanced diet, don’t overdo it on the alcohol (easier said than done at the moment, I know!), exercise regularly and keep healthy sleeping patterns.
  4. Show compassion and kindness to one another – during these times of fear, isolation (both physical and social) and uncertainty are when it is most important that we strengthen our sense of community by connecting with and supporting each other. Remind ourselves that we can manage this much better together in solidarity.
  5. Have perspective – try to see this time as unique and different, not necessarily bad, even though it is something we didn’t choose. Enjoy the things you wouldn’t usually – home-cooked meals, daily walks, your good health, time with family and your pooch etc.
  6. Limit your exposure to news and media – perhaps choose specific times of day when you will get updates, and ensure they are from reputable and reliable sources.
  7. Try to stay positive – this is a hard and unpleasant time, but it will pass. What you say to yourself is important. Change negative self-speak to positive and helpful thoughts.
  8. Watch or read something uplifting – Distraction can be a good thing. Watch something that you find uplifting and allow yourself to zone out occasionally from what’s going on in the world.
  9. Learn something new – have you also wanted to learn how to draw or paint, try new recipes, learn how to play a musical instrument but never had the free time? Well now is a great time to make a start! I was impressed to hear this week that one of my junior candidates is using this time to learn a new language! Duolingo is a free language-learning program you can access from your computer or phone. YouTube has great free online tutorials for pretty much everything too!
  10. Avoid working where you’ll be distracted – this will contribute to feeling productive and minimise work-related stress. One of the keys to successfully working from home is to pretend you’re at an office. Would you stop to do laundry, watch Netflix or do the dishes if you were on the clock at work? Probably not, so get your chores done before you begin work and save time for binging Netflix once you’re done for the day.

If you think you are suffering with potential mental illness, do not suffer in silence; reach out to friends, family, colleagues or even dedicated organisations, some of which are listed below (there are many!):

It is important to remember that it is normal to feel worried, anxious and/or stressed during this uncertain time which is why it is also important to, as best as possible, keep engaged with the activities that support your wellbeing. If however you experience symptoms that you are unable to control, that become overwhelming or too intense, and which significantly impact your day-to-day activities, consider making an appointment with your doctor. Medicare mental health care plans are available from your GP and will entitle you to Medicare rebates for up to 10 appointments with a psychologist.

Wishing everyone health, happiness and positivity during this challenging time.

Kristina Steele

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Naiman Clarke

3 April 2020