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Today’s blog article has kindly been provided by Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, andexplores the help that’s available if you’re suffering from workplace stress, and discusses what organisations should be doing to safeguard their employees’ mental well-being.

Elizabeth writes:

At LawCare we know that life in the law can be challenging and sometimes things can get on top of you.  We’ve been supporting lawyers for 20 years and we’ve seen first hand the effects long hours, high billing targets, and a competitive work environment can have on lawyers, many of whom become stressed.

In addition to this we often see certain personality traits in lawyers: an analytical mind, impatience, extremely driven, perfectionism, a constant feeling of a sense of urgency, and overly self-critical. These can all be very useful in the workplace but destructive in your private life. Often lawyers find it hard to admit they are having a difficult time and not coping for fear of showing weakness or losing face at work.

It is important that both firms and individuals take action to manage stress before it becomes too much to deal with. Stress is a normal response to a demanding work environment but chronic stress increases the risk of addictive and damaging behaviour, of developing anxiety, depression and other mental and physical health problems.

What can firms do to create a mentally healthy workplace

Depression, anxiety and stress are now the leading cause of sickness absence at work costing the UK economy over £70bn per year. Lawyers were found to be the third most stressed profession in a Health & Safety Executive study. The legal profession absolutely needs to make a shift towards a culture that better supports good mental health and wellbeing.

Senior managers need to take a leadership role on the issue of wellbeing. It is important to normalise discussions about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and   senior leaders should be encouraged to talk about their own experiences and how they overcame difficult situations. For many people the way they are treated at work and the behaviour and role-modelling of their managers makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work.

Some firms choose to nominate wellbeing champions or train staff in mental health first aid. These individuals are available to talk to colleagues about anything that is concerning them, provide emotional support and signpost staff in the direction of further support if needed. It helps if some of these individuals are senior, visible people in the organisation.

Firms should also encourage staff to work healthy hours and keep track of their workloads as working long hours can lead to stress and reduce staff performance and morale. Staff should be urged to take all their holiday and discouraged from working at weekends. Evidence suggests that consistently working long hours will damage an individual’s health over time, as well as their home and social relationships. The legal profession needs to move with the times in offering more flexible working hours and arrangements.

Signs that you may be stressed

  • Trouble sleeping:  A vicious circle: worries about work lead to lack of sleep, which makes it difficult to perform well at work.
  • Physical changes: Headaches, skin complaints, frequent colds, aching muscles and digestive problems.
  • Drinking and smoking: Turning to drinking and smoking to cope with the demands of work.
  • Eating:  Comfort eating or skipping meals.
  • Mood swings: Feeling irritated and frustrated, angry one minute and feel fine the next.
  • Panic attacks: These can happen suddenly, for no clear reason. It can mean feeling sick, short of breath, shaking, sweating and experiencing a sense of unreality.

What to do if you are feeling stressed

Even if you work in a firm that has a positive open culture about mental health and good policies in place to support staff, it can be very difficult in practice to admit to colleagues that you are feeling the pressure of work or have a mental health condition. You may be a junior member of the firm and feel that admitting you are struggling will be a career limiting step or a senior partner worried that opening up may reduce the confidence of colleagues in your abilities to lead.  Lawyers are used to solving other people’s problems and it can be very hard to admit that you have any of your own. In a competitive, driven working environment you may feel there is no room for anyone who isn’t on ‘top of their game’.

However we know that talking to someone is  the first step to getting help and support and that in practice when people  share how they are feeling in the workplace , the response is usually positive.   Try and talk informally with a trusted colleague or your supervisor if you feel they might be helpful. Keep a note of any practical issues that are contributing to how you are feeling – e.g. workload, lack of supervision and explain how this is impacting you to explore if the firm can provide support such as flexible hours, delegating some of your caseload or time off.

If you don’t feel you can  talk to anyone at work, then try and talk to a friend or family member but if you don’t feel you can do this, then make an appointment to see your GP. Talking your problems through makes a real difference and provides reassurance you are not alone.

You can also call the free, independent and confidential LawCare helpline on 0800 279 8888. Our trained staff and volunteers will listen without judgement and help you work out what steps you can take to try and improve your situation. We have been listening to lawyers for over 20 years and the most common reason for contacting us is workplace stress. We understand life in the law.

Make sure you are looking after yourself – eating well, getting outside for some fresh air, making time for your friends, family and interests, working healthy hours and getting a good  night’s sleep . When we feel the pressure of work the tendency is to start letting go of all the simple things that actually help maintain our wellbeing – so we spend more time working and less time looking after ourselves. Try and get out of the office at lunchtime – just 15 minutes walk to get a sandwich can make a difference,  take short breaks between tasks – get up from your desk and walk around the office, try a few minutes of deep breathing.

You can find  more  top tips for wellbeing on our website, as well as some practical guidance for managing stress,.

Remember  you are not alone, there is help and support available and talking to someone about how you are feeling is the most important first step you can take.”

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