Mental health awareness week is looming. It is a positive thing and it is a not so positive thing. The lives of thousands will be improved by increased awareness, while a lack of clarity over definitions of mental health and wellbeing means that many will find themselves quietly troubled by stigma and the uncertainty of their own position.
The difference between mental health and wellbeing
Culturally as humans we have a tendency to cast a wide, all embracing net over seemingly complex life issues in need of clarification. As shifting gender roles challenge our ideas of who or what is feminine and or masculine, similarly, we seek to de-stigmatise mental health whilst displaying a lack of compassion for the mentally unwell who work amongst us every day.
Well might we ask what is the difference between mental health and wellbeing? Not all wellbeing issues are psychological problems requiring therapy, many are performance issues that are in need of acknowledgement, coaching and training. It is as important to invest in the well, as it is the unwell. Traditionally, professionals have been slow to understand the significance of prevention and even slower to understand the benefits. We can learn a lot from hindsight, but we have enough information and knowledge available now in understanding human performance that we don’t have to rely solely on it. We live in a time where extraordinary things have happened and emerged, as humans understand how to harness potential.
Law is a stressful profession
The legal profession is stressful, demanding and the stakes are high. Law firms currently have no intention to update their model of working and the pursuit of billable hours.
A senior partner of a prominent law firm when asked about any concerns in regards to the wellbeing of staff, responds that there is a plentiful supply of people wishing to enter the profession, so it is simpler to replace those that burnout with young, fresh talent. This may not be the response we want to hear, but it is honest. And the truth is, it is part of the responsibility of an individual to take care of themselves: you buy the appropriate clothes to do your job, and it follows that you do what is necessary to be fit for purpose. This is not to deny the role of employers in supporting wellbeing. It is simply to point out that the individual must also take some responsibility for themselves.
In a recent report on wellbeing in the law, the number of stressed lawyers is high. This is not surprising when you consider that it is a stressful profession, a natural draw for those who are motivated by the status, money and power that come with a high octane career path. But stress is not a mental health issue if one knows how to manage stress well. Most do not. What they have is a compromised ability to perform well, which is a wellbeing issue. Any professional who wishes to be, and remain, at the top of their game engages a coach. Law is a profession where its members – particularly the males – are reluctant to seek help to improve their performance. Rightly or wrongly they tend to believe that they are invincible, even when they are displaying the symptoms of fear, insecurity and self – doubt.
Adapting to stress
Systems change as the people in the systems change. When people value themselves and the work that they do highly, then the system becomes one that values itself and the work it does highly. Supporting your wellbeing is the means by which you can adapt to the stresses of life. It is also the means by which the legal profession can adapt to supporting its workers within its stressful environment.
The world is shifting in its attitude around personal performance, wellbeing, mental wellness and beyond into a new generation of conscious individuals who understand the importance of not just our own wellbeing, but also that how they live impacts the world.
Here are some simple steps to adapt to and reduce stress:
Avoid fear. Fear is a subtle, initiator of stress. It is used most often to repeatedly sell us stuff we don’t actually need in order to survive: insurance, beauty products, hair restoring creams, sub-zero freezers and so on. News stories are micro-aggressions of fear: knowing about a tragedy over which you have no control is neither helpful nor productive, it just adds to your daily stress load.
Learn to communicate well. The ability to communicate and express yourself well reduces the amount of conflict you will experience in life. Drama can be thrilling, but this does not mean it is good for you. Good communication supports good relationships. Work on improving your communication skills. Especially listening. Traditionally, lawyers are pretty poor listeners.
Make a Plan. Plan your day or week so that you have regular intervals of release from stress. In short spurts we can handle stress quite well. Think of stress like an elastic band. You can endure periods with the band tight, but you need to compensate with periods of slack so that the band can restore itself. If you keep the band stretched for too long, it will snap or fall apart altogether. Stress is a signal from your body that it is contracting. A prolonged state of contraction constricts the healthy functioning of your major organs and will diminish your ability to live and function well. Relaxation is the vital counterpart to stress that supports expansion, growth and life.
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are coaches and co-founders of the Libra Partnership (firstname.lastname@example.org) offering coaching and other performance enhancing services to lawyers, barristers, law firms and chambers.