In discussions about mental health, one word that crops up, again and again, is ‘resilience’. Our resilience is our ability to bounce back from adversity and deal with problems in a positive way. At work, as well as in other aspects of our lives, the way in which we cope with and react to challenges can have a significant effect on our productivity and motivation.
In the legal profession, characterised by long hours, high client expectations and demanding workloads, resilience is critical. Some lawyers thrive on the challenges their job throws at them, however many find it difficult to work under such extreme pressure, and experience high levels of stress and anxiety at work. It is these lawyers who are likely to have low levels of resilience.
Earlier this year, a survey by LawCare revealed that one-fifth of junior lawyers reported regularly feeling unable to cope and 33% of respondents said that they were occassionally unable to cope. 48% of the lawyers they spoke to reported experiencing mental ill-health, an increase on the 37% reported in 2018. The LawCare helpline is busier than ever and, in 2017/18, received an increase in calls of 5% compared with 2016/17. From a business perspective, mental health problems can lead to long-term sickness and absenteeism, costing law firms in terms of talent, time and financial loss.
A resilient workforce is more engaged, productive and high-performing and, ultimately, better equipped to deal with the ever-changing legal sector. It’s, therefore, essential that both lawyers and law firms look to improve their resilience and learn to cope better with the difficulties they might encounter at work.
Luckily, it isn’t a quality given to some people but not others; resilience is an active process that can be learned. The way in which lawyers perceive and adapt to challenges will significantly impact not only their resilience but their mental health and wellbeing as a whole.
How to boost resilience and improve wellbeing
There are a number of steps we can all take to better adapt to challenging situations and improve our resilience:
Focus on what’s working and try not to dwell on problems
Your attitude and perspective are fundamental. Too often, we spend too long worrying about what’s gone wrong, rather than focusing on what’s worked. At the end of each day, take the time to review your successes and reward yourself for the things that have gone well.
If something hasn’t gone your way, recognise that bad situations are usually temporary and tomorrow, move on and concentrate on the tasks you’re good at.
Be proactive and set realistic goals
Focus your time and energy on the things you can control, those that are within your circle of influence, and accept what you can’t change. Work out what you want to achieve, and each day, do something that helps you move towards these goals. Not only will this give you a greater sense of purpose, but you’ll waste less time worrying about tasks that simply aren’t your responsibility.
Take time out
Workaholism is rife amongst solicitors, with many regularly working through their lunch hours and staying at the office late into the evening. While this relentless attitude undoubtedly demonstrates their commitment to the profession, it’s likely to be wreaking havoc on a lawyer’s mental wellbeing.
Working for too long without a break or change of focus can lead to burnout. During the working day, balance your workload and never focus on a single task for more than two hours.
At lunchtime, make sure you take the time to get out of the office for a change of scenery. More importantly, switch off at weekends and in the evenings; avoid checking work emails outside of office hours unless absolutely necessary.
Look after your health
Taking steps to lead a healthy lifestyle, by eating well and getting enough sleep, can have a powerful impact on your mental wellbeing. What’s more, making time to go for a run, take part in a fitness class or play sport can help to reduce the emotional intensity associated with stress and, in turn, give your resilience a boost.
Build a support network
Having a solid group of supportive friends, family and colleagues makes us feel happier, more secure and gives us a greater sense of purpose. Try to maintain a good work-life balance so that you have quality time to spend with friends and family and also make an effort to form relationships the people you spend most of your day with, your colleagues. Not only will you be able to turn to these people when you’re in trouble but they’ll be there to help celebrate your successes.
When things go wrong, forgive yourself
Many solicitors are perfectionists who set themselves very high personal standards and are fearful of making mistakes. While it might be hard for some, self-forgiveness is crucial. To be more resilient, try to reflect on your mistakes, forgive yourself for making them and develop the habit of using your slip-ups as an opportunity to learn and develop.
Develop coping strategies
Pay attention to what causes you to be stressed and experiment with strategies to help you work through these triggers. If you feel under most pressure when you struggle to meet deadlines, plan ahead so that you don’t leave tasks to the last minute. If you start feeling anxious after working non-stop on a single case, try to take regular breaks away from your desk. Using prevention strategies like these is proven to reduce stress and build your resilience.
Studies have shown that shifting the focus from yourself and giving back to others can actually help to improve your wellbeing. Helping a new colleague to settle into the firm or giving a friend a call in their time of need will not only improve your mood by releasing endorphins but help to protect you from the negative effects of stress.
A key trait of people with high levels of resilience is that they have confidence in their ability. Take advantage of development opportunities that come your way to learn new skills, help boost your confidence and make you better able to deal with problems when they arise.
It’s time to take action
For professional services companies, including Deloitte and KPMG, mental health and wellbeing have been on the agenda for a number of years. However, for law firms, it could be argued that mental health and wellbeing have simply not been a priority.
If law firms are to succeed it is essential that workforces are engaged, happy and motivated. Those that take steps to improve the resilience of their employees will be best-placed to compete in today’s ultra-competitive legal marketplace.