Mental Health in Law – speak up, support and share
We are fortunate to live at a time when mental health (or rather lack of it) is, at least, recognised as a potential issue for many. The realisation that mental health is as (and sometimes more) important than physical health has gradually been dawning across society. This is a step forward from the days when it was a taboo subject and stigma and shame prevented people getting the help they needed.
That’s not to declare job done, but to recognise that things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. The very fact I am writing this blog shows how things have changed, even within the timeframe of my own legal career.
Mental health problems cover a huge spectrum of disorders, illnesses, episodes and experiences. Many of us will have a mental health issue of some kind at some point in our lives. To admit to these should not be regarded as a sign of weakness or something of which to be ashamed.
It’s not hard to see why lawyers’ jobs put their mental health at risk. Stress and anxiety caused by the nature and structure of the work (such as the “time is money” narrative) can, if not dealt with appropriately lead to depression and other illnesses.
We all need some stress to perform at our best, but no one should be pushed to breaking point by the excessive demands of their job or, in many cases, as I know only too well, their own unrealistic expectations of themselves.
Employers and law firms (including consultancy models like Nexa’s) have a responsibility to do whatever they reasonably can to take care of their lawyers and all their staff by creating environments that are conducive to good mental health. But what does that involve?
Firstly, people need to feel safe to speak up, to admit when things are getting tough and ask for help. Creating a safe environment doesn’t happen overnight, but having leaders and role models who champion this is a good start.
Having proper mechanisms in place to monitor workloads should be a function of any well-managed firm, this can help prevent pressures getting out of hand in the first place.
The value of investing in education and training is of course well recognised at a professional level, but this needs to extend to mental health – how to recognise the signs and how to respond to them, in ourselves and others.
Making confidential help easily available and sign posting this effectively to staff is a practical solution employers can in put in place.
Sharing experiences and solutions in an open and non-judgmental way can really make a difference. Mentoring is now a widely used tool for supporting staff and extending this to cover mental health should be achievable. Having mental health champions available in the workplace can make a great contribution towards helping staff feel supported when they are experiencing difficulties.
How does the future look?
I’m delighted to hear from my network that a lot of legal workplaces are finally taking the mental health of their staff more seriously. I look forward to seeing some genuine, positive progress in this area over the next few years.
I am determined that Nexa will be a really good example of what to do in this space and how to do it – more on that soon! In the meantime, we all need to keep speaking up, supporting our colleagues and sharing our experiences. Our industry needs all of us to take this seriously.
-Nigel Clark, CEO