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Sustainable wellbeing

11 Dec 2020 / Wellbeing Print

The world is not enough

Are we experiencing the level of sustainable wellbeing that we need to live a fulfilling and healthy life? If not, then something’s not right and we need to talk about it.

I have been spending some time recently thinking about what it means to experience wellbeing as a lawyer.

I started out in my legal career in the late ’90s and what is clear to me is that, when it comes to the discussion around mental health and wellbeing, a lot has changed for the better in the intervening 20 years.

We really have come a long way since then, and the stigma that used to shroud the topic and prevent lawyers from even discussing what it means to have mental health is carefully being lifted with the support of organisations, charters and academia, as well as full conferences dedicated to illuminating the conversation.

In one of my earliest jobs, I worked with a senior colleague who was incredibly knowledgeable in his field, very well-respected in the legal community, and someone who gave generously of his time whenever I asked a question or needed his help.

He was a colleague that I looked up to, and I recall thinking to myself at the time that I aspired to be like him when I ‘grew up’ and became a successful senior lawyer.

One day, I arrived at the office and my colleague was no longer there. His office had been taken over by other people, and I was told that I’d be working with someone else from then on.

It was only a number of weeks later that I discovered that he had become unwell and, although I didn’t know it at the time, had had a serious mental breakdown.

What was most shocking to me about the situation was that I had always experienced him as someone who ‘had it all’ – he was successful, had many accomplishments to his name, and always came across to me as composed, calm, organised and unflappable.

I couldn’t fathom how ‘someone like that’ could be grappling with his mental health.

In the weeks and months that followed, very little was spoken about our colleague, and it was almost as if he had never been part of the organisation.

As far as I am aware, he did not return to his role. In my naivety and in my position as one of the most junior people in the team, I didn’t feel able to ask any questions, and I certainly didn’t know what was best to do in the circumstances, so I put my head down and carried on with my work in an effort to suppress the unnerving feelings about what had happened, and why.

Never say never again

Fast-forward 20 years, and thoughts of my colleague came flashing back when I made the decision to examine my own mental health.

I realised something that felt familiar and overwhelming – a sense of being alone with my feelings, of fearing the judgement of others if they knew my thoughts, and of the guilt for experiencing these feelings when I was in a privileged leadership position. I wondered whether my colleague had felt something similar.

I had worked hard during my career as a lawyer. I had put in the hours, passed all the exams, achieved my billing target most years, gone to all the CPD conferences, and small-talked my way through countless business-development events.

I had ‘made it’ to a senior level of the profession and had, in my own mind at least, become what I had aspired to be all those years ago.

However, just as my colleague from my early career may have felt, I knew I wasn’t experiencing the level of sustainable wellbeing that I needed to live a fulfilling and healthy life. Something wasn’t right – and yet I didn’t know what that was.

With professional help and guidance, I began to understand what wellbeing meant for me, and I also learned that it holds a different ‘truth’ for everyone – one size most definitely does not fit all. Some people will absolutely thrive on the cut-and-thrust of a life in the law, the striving for the perfect legal argument or ‘knock-out’ contract clause, the intellectual stimulation of debating and the ‘highs’ of winning.

Others will be sustained by the financial rewards, the friendships of close colleagues, and the collegiality of their teams. But for a number of lawyers, like me, the years of putting on the professional mask, rarely showing weakness or vulnerability, being afraid of making a mistake, and hiding their authentic selves and their emotions takes its toll on health and wellbeing.

For these people – to allow talented and dedicated lawyers to thrive in their chosen profession – something more is needed: an honest appraisal of the culture of law and a commitment to examine and develop ways in which all who want to are empowered to succeed both professionally and personally.

You only live twice

At the recent inaugural ‘Business of Wellbeing’ event hosted by the Law Society (see the November Gazette, p50), more than 450 participants listened to many perspectives on wellbeing, and they witnessed the power of discussion, as well as the benefits of casting light on a previously hidden area of life as a lawyer.

The personal stories shared by the speakers were inspirational; the thinking around mental health and wellbeing was innovative and refreshing, and the feeling coming away from the event was one of accomplishment. The lid had been lifted on an increasingly important theme for lawyers.

And yet, with all of the initiatives that have been developed, and the many support systems that exist for lawyers, I was struck by the fact that, although much has been achieved, there is still much to do.

Significant problems continue to exist within the legal community, and more is needed to ensure that the lawyers of today and tomorrow belong to a profession that continues to be honest about the challenges it faces, and is robust in leading through the change that is required.

In its 2019 survey of members’ mental health and wellbeing, the Law Society found that solicitors in Ireland reported experiencing considerably lower feelings of wellbeing than the EU average population score.

Over 78% of respondents confirmed that they regularly experience significant stress at work, nearly half indicated that their mental health had been affected to a significant degree by their role, and 25% acknowledged that their job was overwhelming and negatively affecting their lives.

The psychologists who led the study reported that one of the challenges for the profession is “the stigma and fear of being judged critically in the workplace” – very real barriers to seeking help. They went on to say that “some workplaces, through ultra-competitive culture or normalising the overloading of staff, can become, inadvertently but actively, hostile towards those who may need help”.

Quantum of solace

What is encouraging, though, is that investment in mental-health and wellbeing supports (ranging from employee- assistance programmes, to training mental-health ‘first-aiders’, as well as fostering a supportive culture with open conversations around the subject) is good for business, in a financial sense.

The latest reports show that for every €1 invested in this way, an average return of €6 is achieved, with some investments providing as much as a €10 return, and some initiatives being completely free of cost but of significant benefit. So, while it’s the right thing for organisations to do, it also makes good business sense.

Fewer talented lawyers leave organisations that have an embedded culture of wellbeing. Individuals are far more likely to feel fulfilled in their roles and, therefore, encourage and mentor others in their teams.

Costs of recruitment can be reduced and profitability and sustainability (including formal sick-leave and productivity) are shown to be stronger in those businesses where people feel they belong and can be themselves.

The living daylights

Many organisations and individuals are already leading the way. Following the release of the Law Society’s commissioned report, it launched the Wellbeing Hub “to contribute to the improved wellbeing, resilience and emotional and psychological health of its members”.

The hub signposts reputable and independent wellbeing supports, services and training. For example, it flags LegalMind, a confidential, independent, and low-cost mental-health support, that is available to solicitors at any time of the day or night. It also contains the Professional Wellbeing Charter for the solicitors’ profession, alongside many other and varied resources.

In the educational space, the emphasis on the psychological wellbeing of trainees is a central component of learning, and the fact that there is access for trainee lawyers to psychotherapy, both group and individual, is to be actively celebrated.

Beyond the Law Society, it is also clear that law firms and individuals within those firms, as well as other organisations, are making a difference. The fact that wellbeing is now more frequently seen on the agenda of management committees and departmental meetings is a welcome change.

The more the conversations are normalised, the greater the chance that people in need will come forward asking for help.

Diamonds are forever

The power to change the narrative around mental health and wellbeing for lawyers is within each one of us. We, both acting alone and in collaboration with others, can shine the brightest of lights on the topic.

We can share our stories, be candid about the challenges, and have unashamed conversations around mental health. We can examine our behaviours, become more aware of cultural impacts, and be mindful of what our colleagues and friends may be experiencing. Above all, we can choose how we show up, and how we support those around us.

The legal profession is a strong and fiercely determined group of individuals. We achieve momentous results for our clients, we have diverse talents, and there is huge potential for change. If we put our collective legal minds to the challenge of ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of our colleagues, the likelihood of success is extremely high.

I have been spending some time recently thinking about what it means to experience wellbeing as a lawyer. For me, it’s about belonging. It’s about being in an environment (whether a profession or business) that not only allows me to be – but really values me – for being me; an organisation, a role or workplace that embraces my vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies and openly supports me – not in spite of those, but because of them.

I look on my legal career with pride, and I know that I wouldn’t be me without it. Having refocused my work, I am now in the very privileged position to stand alongside many lawyers, law firms, and organisations, supporting them through their own exploration of what wellbeing means, and I continue to learn from those around me about how we can best ensure that it remains firmly on the agenda for all lawyers. 

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Katie da Gama
Katie da Gama is a lawyer and leadership development consultant in Dublin