It’s National Stress Awareness Day this week and I think it’s about time we started being more honest about the topic of stress in the legal profession.
When we launched Lawscot Wellbeing, we committed to talking more openly, so I’ll put my money where my mouth is and volunteer to go first.
During my career, I’ve experienced stress at varying levels on a regular basis. The demands on your time and expertise coming from various directions – family, colleagues, clients and third parties. It can be hard to keep on top of everything whilst having a fun and fulfilling life.
At my very worst, I remember having panic attacks at my desk while those around me carried on as if nothing was happening.
Feeling stressed from time to time is normal – it’s a natural response to challenges and can help us meet that ridiculously tight deadline or pass difficult exams. However, prolonged stress has a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. Another horrible side effect of stress is that it can make you feel totally isolated. Why am I struggling with this while my colleagues blissfully handle their workload? It might be hard to remember this during the low times but you’re not alone.
Stress is everywhere within the legal world.
I’ve seen it in colleagues as they worked towards yet another deadline.
I’ve noticed its presence lurking in boardrooms and offices across Scotland.
You can sense it hiding behind a self-deprecating comment from a solicitor wishing to ‘pack it all in’.
I worry about its effect as a friend confides that she left the office at 4am the night before.
If you look hard enough, you can see it peeking behind the mask-like smiles on the faces of solicitors and friends when you ask how they are doing.
So, why do so few of us acknowledge its existence? Why is it normalised within our working culture?
Personally, I think it’s about time employers within the legal ecosystem – and elsewhere, as I know we are not unique in this - think about ways that they can improve the wellbeing of their staff. As a profession we should call time on the toxic environments that allow stress to thrive. People managers should think about targets and workloads with a realistic mindset remembering that there are people behind those numbers.
All employers have a responsibility to provide an environment that is healthy for everyone. It can be huge challenge to address issues which are so engrained in our working culture, but there is some great information out there to help employers support your employees.
Lawscot Wellbeing includes a section on positive employment practices and the amazing folk at SeeMe have come up trumps with some great tools and resources to end mental health discrimination in the workplace. If you are an employer, I would strongly encourage you to take a look and take action - you can make a difference.
And it’s not just employers that can initiate change. Employees can take action too, however small, to help improve life at work and prevent stress developing in the first place.
Here are some tips from the great folk at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH):
- Talk to someone you trust, at work or outside, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed
- Try to take a walk or get some fresh air during the day – exercise and daylight are good for your mental health as well as your physical health
- Write a list of what needs to be done; it only takes a few minutes and can help you to prioritise, focus and get things in perspective, and it can also feel satisfying to tick items off once they have been done
- Learn to recognise what you find stressful in the work environment, e.g. unrealistic targets; and what helps you work well, e.g. a quiet space. Then talk to your employer about it.
- Find out how your goals fit in with the organisation’s overall aims and objectives so that you can see a real purpose to your work.
And if I could make one final appeal to employers and employees alike… it would be great to share your stories… with each other and with us. While mental health issues remain taboo, we will struggle to eliminate stigma and discrimination. Get in touch. We’ll be listening.