Children’s Mental Health Week

  • 03/02/2022

February 7th-13th 2022 sees Children’s Mental Health Week take place, an annual week which encourages children, young people and adults to look after their bodies and minds.

‘Mental health’ is a very personal, individual concept. Growing up, to me mental health was very black and white, either you ‘had it’ or you didn’t. It is only in more recent years, that I have realised that mental health, like a lot of things, is on a continuum. Anxiety, stress, low moods, depression, loneliness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, to name a few, are problems that all of us are likely to face to some degree at some point, in one way or another. And that is without adding a global pandemic into the mix.

Luckily, mental health has become something that is now much more openly and freely discussed; you only have to scroll on LinkedIn for a few minutes to see that everyone faces their own difficulties. Yet a recent study highlighted that more than 50% within the legal sector were worried that talking about their mental health would negatively affect their career progression and 75% said they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for time off because of their mental health. Having become a qualified solicitor within the last two years, it seems likely that these figures would be even higher amongst junior solicitors.

A Young Professional

Qualifying as a solicitor is a landmark moment for all young lawyers. However, the shift in responsibility, workload, internal pressures and feelings of imposter syndrome can be extremely overwhelming during this stage in your career. No matter how many times someone tells you, ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’, the feeling that everyone else but you knows what they are doing is hard to shake. On top of the internal dialogue of self-doubt and the increased workload, a culture of so-called  ‘resilience’ is all too common amongst young professionals; never saying that you actually don’t have capacity to take on work, an attitude that longer hours is the pinnacle of dedication and the idea that calling in sick is out of the question. An attitude that has more recently been labelled ‘toxic productivity’. Understandably, junior lawyers are keen to impress. The first few years post qualification feel crucial to making a mark but it is important that this isn’t to the detriment of our own wellbeing.

Contrary to popular belief, resilience doesn’t mean pretending all is okay and putting on a brave face. It means having internal and external strategies in place to cope with stress. Internal strategies refer to how we manage anxiety; what we say to ourselves to cope with negative thoughts and treating ourselves kindly, guarding against perfectionist thinking and telling ourselves it is okay to ask for help. Some external strategies are within our control; talking to our peers, getting out in the fresh air, asking for help, taking a lunch break. However, these strategies that became even more spoken about during the pandemic, can only take us so far. Other strategies rely on our employers to model and, promote a culture that allows us to facilitate them.

How the Employer can help

Moving to a different law firm as a newly qualified solicitor in the middle of a lockdown had the potential to be extremely difficult. The hundreds of questions are difficult to ask whilst sitting at home on your own. The busy office environment is lost and it has the potential to be extremely isolating. Even without moving firms, I have no doubt that the feelings of self-doubt multiplied for junior lawyers during the pandemic.

For me, regular supervision has been invaluable during this period. It may seem obvious, but I know that it doesn’t always happen and it is easy when everyone is so busy for it to be postponed and pushed back indefinitely. Receiving feedback, advice, discussing your workload and simply being asked if you are getting on okay, makes a huge and significant difference.

Furthermore, a workplace where all staff, from the top down, demonstrate that it is okay to ask for help and show that you are a person not just a member of staff, is crucial to a junior solicitor’s ability to deal with this stage of their career. When people can talk about the “stuff” going on in their lives, their unwell parent or their poorly dog, it makes them feel valued as a person and it makes for a more open and honest environment. A culture in which senior staff also say if they haven’t done something before and actively tell their staff to take a day off if they aren’t well or not to reply to emails when on holiday, sets the standard for all and as a result, worries are dramatically reduced and overall wellbeing is increased. It is only if this environment is created that any of us are able to feel that we wouldn’t be discriminated against for discussing our own mental health and ironically, an environment that fosters this approach is much less likely to experience staff needing time off because of their mental health and wellbeing.

For further information and support, visit the LawCare website, a mental wellbeing charity for the legal community.

Naomi O’Rourke, Solicitor at Potter Rees Dolan and member of the MLS Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committee