We’re stuck in lockdown, again, and it’s winter. The Journal took a mini-survey of how people are coping and hopes the responses might be of use to others

Lockdown, second time around. Are you coping? Is it easier or harder this time? How do you combat periods of low mood? The Journal set out to uncover some answers that might help those who are finding the going hard just now.

Alan Moffat, clerk at Ampersand Advocates and someone who takes an interest in this topic, believes people basically fall into two camps. “Some are quite comfortable with the homeworking and being restricted in what they can do, and if you’re in that happy place that’s great, but there are some who have struggled with the lack of interaction right through this whole time, even when lockdown eased, so I think we all have to be mindful that even if you are in a good place, everybody around you may not be.

“Given it’s winter, I think it has been incredibly difficult for those with young children who are having to home school, and also those who live on their own, because the opportunities to go out and get some sunlight are limited to being quite religious about taking a lunch break.”

Criminal defence solicitor Melissa Rutherford admits: “I have been finding this lockdown much more difficult than the first, whether it’s because now that we know what to expect, it’s just harder to deal with, or it’s the mental exhaustion of going through all the emotions again, or it’s the time of year and weather.

“I have a seven-year-old daughter and we are struggling with motivation for home schooling and working from home in general. The days I am at court or prison visits have been fine; I have managed to secure space in the adult world for myself and it’s been more like what was normal life. The days we are at home are tough, long, busy and tiring.”

Stephen Vallance of the HM Connect network has a further angle: “Everyone is coping, but I’m not sure how many are flourishing. I think economically more firms are doing okay or better. The issues with remote working, and with pressure of work, are though pretty universal and there are a lot of people working at unprecedented levels of busyness, often without their support staff because they have been furloughing. I do worry that they are finding it tough, because as a profession we can’t work at that pace without some form of rest or quieter period.”

Out of town

Negative feelings are likely even in rural areas less affected by the virus. Campbeltown solicitor Campbell Read is glad to have “fantastic access to open spaces and beaches; none of us use public transport for work, so all that has really happened here is transaction volume is down”. (That, he explains, is partly because not all firms were set up like his for remote working before the first lockdown, though others have since been catching up.)

Mentally, it has been harder this time, however. “The first lockdown was nice weather: you could be outdoors, people were exercising, but now in the cold of winter, when it’s dark morning and night, it’s much harder to maintain that positive attitude.”

And although many people locally showed a great community spirit, with action groups shopping for the elderly and checking to make sure everyone was all right, there was a darker side. Lack of clarity between regulations and guidance about what you could and couldn’t do, “almost created a sort of vigilante culture – some people took it on themselves to prosecute others for bad behaviour, including in social media. Somebody put on a Facebook page, is it OK to take my dog to the local beach for a walk? I consulted the rules and said no problem, and ended up getting death threats, and did I want to bring COVID to Kintyre and kill everyone. It was ridiculous”.

Children issues

For Read, the toughest thing has been the children, especially when they have to be home schooled, though he has key worker status.

Others agree. Local authority solicitor and manager Nicola Hogg found 2020 “really challenging”, with disruption to career plans, the demands of home schooling and “still needing to do your job, the logistics of having to work from home and trying to set yourself up for that and still provide a service and be a manager. It’s been huge, actually, and friends in private practice are still having to worry about their billing and feeing and so on. It’s put an incredible amount of pressure on people”.

Is it any or better or worse this time round? “As the children get older, it doesn’t get easier; it’s just different,” she says.

With she and her husband both now key workers and having some schooling available, she adds: “I honestly don’t know on reflection how I managed with the children and a busy job, other than I just had to get on with it. There was no alternative. I worked late into the night, juggling things, constantly reprioritising work tasks. Trying to get out at lunchtime became even more important, for everybody’s sanity, and realising the points when you were only going to be able to do one thing, and that had to be work; the kids would just have to have TV time – perhaps with a treat to be extra quiet!”

Melissa Rutherford says she and her daughter “are both trying our best, but she is missing her friends, her routine at school and everything about it. She even told me the other night, ‘Mummy, I think we are hanging out together too much.’ I understand. I must get pretty boring after a while”.

It isn’t just school-age children who are finding it tough. Alan Moffat’s daughter is in her first year of a law degree, “basically distance learning, and that’s quite difficult for students generally: they’ve not had the normal university experience they would expect because they’re unable to make friends, network and learn from each other. That has not been an easy start: law is a difficult subject at the best of times”.

He observes: “I don’t think you can overstate the impact when they had their 18th birthday in lockdown, their end of school year cut short, never got their prom or whatever, missed their first freshers’ week – that’s a pretty tough start to adult life. So that’s something we have to be mindful of.”

Not just “fine”

Words of wisdom can be had from Twitter, like this recently shared quote: “A useful starting point is to assume no one is okay.”

Moffat is one who tries to put that into practice. “We have to be mindful of what everybody is potentially going through in their life, so from the point of view of the line manager for my team, of my members, but also solicitors and support staff, it’s always good just to speak to people and see how they are.

“There is not the same level of just saying ‘fine’ if somebody asks how you are and brushing it off. I think people now ask out of genuine interest because they want to make sure before they ask a question that things are OK. I definitely think there is a greater understanding and this time round people are more likely to pick up the phone, whereas before an email might have been the way to do things.”

Another team leader points to the value of managers being open about their own difficulties. “Checking in with my team regarding their mental health and being open about mine has been really important in the last 10 months,” personal injury solicitor Cat Headley affirms. “And having partners in my firm speak openly about their struggles has, oddly, provided comfort that no matter what level you are at, this year has been a struggle and there is no shame in admitting it. Leadership on mental health and reducing stigma has never been more important than it is right now.”

Employers can provide further support. “The council has been really good about sending out surveys about wellbeing, offering us courses that we can attend,” Nicola Hogg reports. “We have a referral service we can phone and there are helplines available, so as a manager I’ve been reminding my staff that they can access that support.

“We’ve got a WhatsApp group where we might share silly videos and jokes, and I suppose you just have to be realistic in your own expectations of what you or others can achieve in a day, with all the other demands that might be placed on you.”

Be kind to yourself – within rules

Cat Headley, who lives alone, has learned to accept her own good and bad days. “I think the most basic advice I could give is to recognise how you are feeling on any given day and be okay with that. If you are having a bad day, even a crisis day, accept that that is what it is; don’t beat yourself up about it or tell yourself to ‘get a grip’. Allowing yourself those days and knowing that everyone has them has enabled me to get through them a bit more easily. That might mean setting simple but achievable work goals for the day, speaking to a colleague about how I’m feeling or taking some time off to get to the end of the day.

“Equally, when I’m feeling happy and content, I acknowledge that and enjoy it as a ‘good day’ and proof that not every day is a bad one, even at the moment.”

Pretty much everyone underlines the importance of daily routines, with regular breaks and exercise – even when the pressure is on, as Hogg noted above. She also rates being, “not strict with yourself but kind to yourself, getting yourself up and dressed and treating it like the professional job that it is. One of my colleagues appeared in a dressing gown one day. You can’t be doing that because it’s not good for your mental health”.

If you feel down, she continues, “that’s okay, but try and find something that makes you feel better: going out for a quick walk, phoning a friend, watching a funny video: it doesn’t matter, just do something. And if work is annoying, close the laptop and walk away. Quite often I use the delete button – that’s a top tip actually, if you go back to it tomorrow it’ll still be there – and don’t respond too quickly to emails, because everybody has resorted to those; there’s not the same conversation going on”.

Do something different

What else might work? Perhaps a dog, even in the office, as Campbell Read does: “She comes in with me every day. Our office is a converted church, very spacious, and she takes a lot of the edge off things for people. It’s incredible what an animal does in the office.”

For those times you are able to put everything aside, Stephen Vallance advises doing something totally different. “I’ve got my bike set up in our back room. I now have an app on my phone linked to our TV, and in the evening I can go cycling in the Alps, so that gives one relief.

“The other one, it sounds mad, but I got so frustrated that I went out and bought myself a van, which I’m now converting into a camper van. I have no knowledge or experience of camper vans, or doing mechanical work, I don’t even care whether I finish it, but it’s lovely having something so removed from your work, spending a few hours just pottering about. It’s finding things you can focus on. If there’s a positive you can take, it’s that there has never been a better time to learn new skills.”

Looking ahead

Another learning he offers is: “It doesn’t matter what you do, there is always uncertainty. We forget that things were uncertain a year, five years, 10 years ago, and the only way you kind of get to grips with it is to take control of the things you can take control of.”

He concludes: “My own personal view is that we’re in this for a while yet, and I sense that whether we are or not, we’ve reached one of those points in history that things are not going to go back the way. Remote signatures and registration, blended working, these are here to stay, whether lockdown is over or not.”

Campbell Read definitely would like some IT-enabled tasks to be allowed to continue, such as notarising documents remotely: “I’ve been asking for that for a long time. We’ve got clients on the islands and if they needed something notarised, quite often that meant an expensive long journey. So I hope we can keep that when we move forward.”

He also hopes that not everything will continue remotely just because it can. “Virtual meetings are great, but we are really missing out on human contact and it’s a big worry for me that that might be lost permanently in the name of financial economies. Especially for younger lawyers. I am aware of many junior solicitors in particular who don’t want to meet people face to face or talk to them on the phone – they want to email or text, and I really fear that we are going to have a generation where we all become quite distant from each other. Human interaction will be lost and I think that will have a crashing impact on mental health.”

Sign up to mental health days

“We have learned from our partnership with See Me, and collaboration with LawCare, that enabling people to share their own experiences is one of the best things you can do for the conversation around mental health. Having people speak out and be role models helps bring stories to life and personalise the conversation, bringing it closer to home.”

The quote is from the most recent of the Society’s blogs on mental health: Olivia Moore promotes the benefits for employers of taking part in “mental health days”. A calendar of events is provided, plus links to more Lawscot Wellbeing resources.

LawCare itself is always there. Its latest annual statistics recorded a 9% increase in enquirers last year, with 34% of issues since March having a COVID element.

Chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer comments: “Many people are finding it difficult to keep going – to those people we would say focus on what is happening in the present moment, take one day at a time, eat well, get enough sleep, take some exercise outside and reach out to someone to talk about how you are feeling. LawCare is here to offer you emotional support on 0800 279 6888, or email support@lawcare.org.uk

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