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In the first episode of our Obelisk Live podcast series, Obelisk Support Head of Experience Laura Vosper discussed the topic of maintaining our mental health in times of self-isolation and coronavirus with LawCare’s CEO, Elizabeth Rimmer. For those that were unable to join the webinar or prefer to read rather than watch content, we’ve summarised the key take-aways from the discussion.

About LawCare

LawCare is a charity supporting the entire legal profession, no matter what your role. Set up in the 1990s, Lawcare aims to create and support a community that understands the value of good mental health, where people are thriving in the legal profession, not just surviving. It is delivering this through support, prevention and education, driving change in the culture and practice of law, as well as research projects analysing data on the mental health of lawyers in the UK and Ireland.

Why is maintaining wellbeing vital

In order to function efficiently, to be able to think clearly and benefit from the best decision making processes we can access, we all need to be mindful of our mental health and stresses.

There is plenty of evidence which suggests that even in more ordinary times stress and pressure impacts on our cognitive ability to function efficiently, and to perform well we need to find methods of reducing and releasing the build up.

Currently in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, our worlds, both professional and personal, have all changed dramatically within the space of around two weeks. This brings significant impact as we all adjust to new ways of working. Even if you previously worked remotely you were unlikely to be doing so with your children and partner in the property, let alone trying to juggle homeschooling or remote care for elderly relatives alongside.

Top tips for maintaining your wellbeing

# 1 Punch holes in your stress-bucket

Elizabeth Rimmer suggests we picture our well-being a bit like a bucket. Individual stresses and pressures increase the level of water in the bucket – if the water reaches the top and spills out, that represents being overloaded by the stress. She recommends we picture maintaining the level in the bucket by metaphorically punching holes in the sides so that the water is released in different ways before it reaches overspill.

# 2 Make time for the things that make us feel well

Sticking with the stress-bucket analogy, any activities which can help reduce the level are ones which are beneficial to our well-being. These include taking time every day to think about and make sure that we (and our family members) are:<

  • Eating well
  • Making time for exercise
  • Facilitating good sleep
  • Staying connected to friends and family outside of our household, using whatever kinds of technology and social media we have available to us.

#3 Watch out for unhelpful coping mechanisms

Likewise, we should all be aware of things that will only add to the level in the bucket. We will all have our individual triggers but some things to look out for include:

  • Letting our alcohol intake creep up to unhealthy amounts of consumption
  • Not eating as well as we might usually (lock-down restrictions mean we are likely to have to spend more, not less, time thinking about meal-planning and ensuring everyone is eating well)
  • Remembering to be kind to ourselves – these are exceptional times and we should try to accept the situation and not overthink where we might be going wrong.

#4 Think about things we can control

We can’t control the bigger picture. It is important to remember that – but there are things we can control. We can follow the social distancing and lock-down guidelines, we can wash our hands and look for ways to support our communities.

There is evidence that giving back and doing things for others helps your well-being, so look for safe opportunities to volunteer or to feel part of your local community.

#5 Update filter systems

It is important to manage the information coming into our lives, particularly as a lot of the information available at the moment can be distressing and feed anxiety and concern. We all need to stay informed, but not to the level that we feel overwhelmed.

Get ahead of information overload by managing your input. Turn off alerts and be mindful of setting a time to engage. Don’t let yourself go down rabbit holes of distraction or ruminate on unhelpful negative thoughts.

#6 Maintain routines

Work and school life creates structures and routines, which a lot of people find helpful. Remember that suddenly removing these things creates uncertainty which doesn’t help our well-being, so it is worth considering a new structure for daily life.

Rimmer suggests building daily exercise into that, outside if at all possible or practical, and she advocates doing this first thing in the morning so that it sets up the day well.

She also suggests setting family routines such as eating lunch together and scheduling regular evening video calls with friends and family.

#7 Aim for harmony: reduce friction and conflict

Now is definitely not the time to add more stress into your life. Know that you can only do the best you can manage.  If you have children, cut them a bit of slack as they will be missing the physical presence of their friends.

Acknowledge that whilst in an ideal world we would all use screens less, perhaps also be less rigid with maintaining screen time restrictions to maintain a degree of harmony.

#8 Enjoy the luxury of ‘more time’

There are still only 24 hours in a day, but without a commute / school run and activities to ferry people to, you potentially have more time for the family, or for engaging in activities such as music, reading or listening to podcasts.

There is an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with these things. Use this time to set new habits if you can.

#9 Re-frame negatives as positives

Rather than thinking of being ‘stuck at home’ think of being privileged to be able to stay at home to stay safe.

Particularly if you have teenagers, see if they can get involved in owning their time and taking responsibility.

Try to see the current situation as a life lesson for children and teenagers, that things won’t always go according to plan, circumstances can change overnight but working together can make the very best of a bad situation.

#10 Switch off at the end of the working day

Now is not the time to be putting in 70 and 80 hour weeks. Aim to change gears at the end of the day and switch off. Try to make sure that work doesn’t creep into times which you previously protected by moving from office to home.

Advice for legal leaders in how best support teams

If you’re a manager or team leader you may have now found yourself needing to manage people that are now physically dispersed.

Remember that at its heart, law is still a very hierarchical profession. Everyone needs to see their leaders acting well and feel they can rely on them, so maintaining your mental health is vital.

# 1 Recognise your own mental health and wellbeing is important

Your team is relying on you to lead the way. By consciously and obviously showing you are looking after your own mental health you are sending a positive message to the rest of your team.

As we touched on above, there is evidence that if you’re stressed and under pressure, your decision-making process and clarity of mind will be compromised. Maintaining your own mental health puts you in the best possible place to make the best possible decisions.

#2 Communication

More than ever, communication is key. Do not let there be vacuums of silence which team members can fill with stress, worry or going rogue. Reassure people they are not being left out.

Set up weekly or daily Zoom or phone calls as appropriate, fostering a connection to others and sense of team as well as a way to give out work or report on progress.

Remember that even if you and your team are used to working remotely, it is not business as usual. Up the connection so no one feels abandoned.

#3 Rely on professional resources

If you have practical or regulatory issues, such as in relation to the courts, or workflow, finances, or other issues, don’t guess. Turn to your professional bodies and their resources, such as the SRA, The Law Society, The Bar Council, CiLex, and so forth, for guidance. They will all be producing resources and support for issues that are arising due to these new circumstances.

Likewise, talk to your professional connections and colleagues and learn from what others are doing.

#4 Recognise that no-one has the answers

Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability to your team. It is OK to say that they’ve raised an issue or you’ve encountered a situation that hasn’t been dealt with before and that you/ management will go away and figure it out.

The leveller of this pandemic is that we are all in the same boat and experiencing it for the first time at the same time.

#5 Find positives and laughter

Can you find new ways to communicate and to bring more of the personal to the professional?

Perhaps team themed discussions (such as everyone introducing pets, or wearing hats, or dressing up for a shared Friday drink) as well shared virtual social events.

Well-being and the legal sector

Are there things which are of a particular issue for lawyers? Rimmer suggested that lawyers should watch out for the following traps:

  • Perfectionism
    • Lawyers have a propensity to perfectionism and this could be particularly damaging at this time if you are also trying to homeschool.
    • Watch out for this and remember that this is a difficult time for everyone including those that are already teachers and home-educators.
  • Ruminating on things you didn’t do quite as well as you could have done
    • This is a situation that is new and stressful for everyone and people will be responding in different ways, possibly outside their own usual coping mechanisms.
    • Conversations over text or chat do not always convey tone in the right way and conversations via telephone and web conferencing bring their own issues.
    • Get in the habit of briefly considering what you might do differently next time and then putting it out of your mind, rather than fixating on things.
  • Admitting your own issues
    • A lawyer’s work is usually about solving another person’s issues rather than their own, so lawyers often find it hard to admit they have issues too.
    • We all have issues and need support, so talk to colleagues and others about how you are feeling.
  • Legal practice and culture
    • There is an endemic long hours culture in the legal profession and many of our worlds revolve around billable hours, targets and meeting client needs 24/7.
    • It is more important than ever to maintain boundaries and work healthy hours.

Well-being and the legal sector in the future

In the future there will be a lot of reflection and discussion in due course about what we’ve all learnt from this period and what the legal sector can do differently.

Rimmer says that she is hoping the legal community will realise that we can trust and value people, and that firms can see their greatest assets are their people. She hopes that people will have risen to the challenge and proved that we can all be trusted to be working to the best of our ability whether that is in an office or at home.

She also hopes that the importance of health and mental wellbeing will be emphasised. Clarity of mind is vital and mental wellbeing is central to that and there will be an opportunity for a genuine re-examination of what makes people better workers.

We are now using new ways of working and it would be a real step forward for the legal profession if this remains once things go back to ‘normal’. It could even prompt a re-think of the traditional long-hours culture associated with the law.

What can LawCare offer?

Anyone in the legal profession can access their live web-chat, confidential email service and helplines, as well as downloading resources from the website.

  • Helpline open 9am – 5:30pm Monday to Friday
  • Webchat available: Tuesday & Wednesday 1:15pm-5:30pm and Thursday 9am-1:15pm
  • Helpline: 0800 279 6888

Where to find more?

Government advice:

<https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-public-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing/guidance-for-the-public-on-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-aspects-of-coronavirus-covid-19

Wellbeing Resources:

https://www.actionforhappiness.org/

https://www.wellbeingrepublic.com/

Other organisations who can help:

https://www.mind.org.uk/

https://www.samaritans.org/

https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/

Advice on living well:

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/eight-tips-for-healthy-eating/

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/

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