Today’s blog article has kindly been written by Neelum Dass and is a write-up of an excellent event held as part of Mental Health Awareness week. It is full of practical tips on what you can to do help yourself and others with mental health issues. Neelum is an associate in the Commercial IP/IT team of Bristows, one of our Charter signatories.

Neelum writes:

IP Inclusive and Kilburn & Strode recently hosted the talk “Surviving or Thriving” focussed on mental health in the work place. The speakers were:

  • Dr Lianne De Maar, private GP with an interest is psychological wellness and women’s health;
  • Dr Bill Mitchell, clinical psychologist with a particular interest in treating work-related psychological difficulties; and
  • Emily Collins, UK patent attorney who co-founded a mental health awareness campaign while studying at Oxford University and is now involved with mental health initiatives in the work place.

The talk was structured as a Q&A session with three key themes.

1. Why talking about mental health is important

Poor mental health can easily lead to loss of balance in life which in turn could result in serious physical and mental problems such as depression or anxiety. Legal professionals are particularly vulnerable to stress and exhaustion given the high-pressure, demanding nature of their jobs. Initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week are important because they put psychological health on the corporate agenda in an effort to break the stigma. For example, there is a widespread belief that a person with mental health issues is weak. On the contrary, Dr Mitchell considers that those who have struggled with this are actually more self-aware and conscious of what they need to do to achieve and maintain good health.

2. What you can do to help yourself

Dr Mitchell sees more lawyers than other professionals and suggested that perhaps this is because they are paid to identify risks and focus on what happens when things go wrong. The speakers offered practical tips to help manage mental health, for example, they encouraged people to access help at an early stage when feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. Something as simple as a good conversation early on could prevent someone from going down the wrong path.

​Having a better perspective on failure also helps. Failure should be handed in a normal way rather than being seen as a catastrophe, which could diminish confidence and resilience. People will make mistakes and lose important clients but Dr Mitchell sees failures as part of the experience of developing good strategies to deal with a demanding life and to thrive at work. Dr De Maar added that a person is more likely to have a catastrophic outlook if they are exhausted. Overwhelmed people sleep less and drop their exercise routines and healthy eating and these exacerbate the stress and fatigue. She advised, “make yourself your most important client”.

Another useful tip is to be aware of physical symptoms of poor mental health such as chronic headaches, sleep difficulties or bowel problems. The earlier these symptoms are identified, the easier the process of management and recovery.

People who are stressed and feel like they are losing a grip should make use of all resources available in the workplace, such as Employee Assistance Programmes which offer telephone counselling, to bring themselves back into balance. [Ed: The LawCare helpline is also available to everyone working in the legal sector].

Strong resilience skills can also help and Dr Mitchell offered advice on how to build these: (i) protect your stability through good sleep, exercise and friendships. Most people drop these when life gets demanding but these should be non-negotiable; (ii) be an active agent in your life rather than feeling helpless and always challenge how you can make things better; and (iii) have a positive mind set which can shift emotions and improve your health immediately.

3. What can managers do to help others

Anyone who runs a team should recognise that they have some responsibility for the team’s mental well-being. Managers should try to be in tune with how juniors are coping and foster an environment where juniors feel they can ask for help without being judged. Dr De Maar considers that an open door policy is a good first step. Staff should know that they are not expected to work until they burn out and that they can speak up if things get difficult.

Celebrating success is important if, for example, the team achieves something unexpected or wins a new client. Recognition of contributions, no matter how small, makes people feel good and makes the office a more fun place to work.

Managers should look out for early warning signs so they can pick up on any employees who might be struggling. For example, look out for subtle changes in behaviour, such as a person becoming a bit withdrawn or easily irritable, or facial signs implying lack of sleep.

A manager who is worried about a colleague should tell that person, or at least make sure they know they can talk about it, or point them the direction of support mechanisms in the firm.

Emily considers that empathetic managers are more likely to spot if someone they line manage is struggling. In practice, managers should: 1) get the message out that it’s ok to talk about mental health and it won’t affect career prospects; 2) look at the firm and make sure that number 1 is true; and 3) get systems, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, in place now.

Thank you Neelum for this excellent summary.  If you would like to write a blog article for us, please email Emily Teesdale of Abel & Imray. Volunteer bloggers are always welcome!

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