By Laura Darnley, Employment Solicitor at HRC Law
Lawyers, like many professionals, are feeling the strain.
A recent survey by Lexis-Nexis found that almost 66 per cent of solicitors feel high levels of stress and that 76 per cent of solicitors feel that stress/mental wellbeing in the legal profession is a major issue.
90 per cent of individuals surveyed believed that stress and mental health wellbeing was an issue for the profession; 75 per cent felt it was a major issue.
So why is this the case, and what can legal professionals do to combat it? How can you achieve the ever-elusive holy grail of “work-life” balance?
For me, the very term “work-life” balance is misleading. This suggests a static equilibrium where work commitments on the one hand and family and personal development needs on the other exist in perfect harmony. This imagery has the potential to fool us into thinking there is a magic formula for balance which, once achieved, results in ongoing harmony for the rest of our working lives.
In my experience, however, real life is never so straightforward. For me “work-life” balance is a constant shifting of the scales. At some points my “life” might require a bit more input; another week, work may be particularly demanding. Overall, the aim is for balance, but what that looks like on any given day, month or year, may be radically different. And of course, what looks like balance for me, may not be balance for you.
With this comes the realisation that “work life balance” is less of destination and more of a journey.
This balancing act is definitely made harder by modern technology, which ever increasingly blurs the lines between “work” and “life”. Whilst being constantly connected to the workplace has advantages in terms of flexibility and home-working, it brings its own challenges.
Solicitors, like others in the working world, have embraced this new technology and continue to do so. We also (speaking in general terms) tend to be people who are keen to achieve the best and eager to meet our clients’ needs.
The perceived need to be “always on” and to respond in real time to clients in order to achieve our professional goals, constantly battles with the human need for down-time – not to mention our personal family needs and desires. With increased connectivity comes a real risk that the scales may stay permanently tipped towards the work side, unless we take steps to regain the overall balance.
To be clear, none of this means that we shouldn’t be working hard. Rather it’s a recognition that, to achieve happiness, we must strive for it. Not only through fulfilling work, but also through fulfilling activities in our personal life. We need to make time for ourselves; it doesn’t happen if we don’t make it happen.
That old axiom that you can’t have everything may be true; but we can strive for a little bit of everything if that is what we want. The first stage is knowing what it is that you want. If you can, write it down. We have “to do” lists for work; why not have one for the big picture too?
Of course, there are some environments in which achieving your goals might be more achievable than in others.
As an employment lawyer, I’m particularly alive to the impacts that different workplace environments can have on employees –in terms of employee engagement, motivation, stress and ultimately staff retention.
If you are increasingly finding yourself stressed and out of balance, it is worth re-evaluating these factors to see if there are things you can change to help you achieve your version of balance.
Culture fit is key. Employers’ actions can make a real difference to the well-being of their workers. And, for employers, it’s worth putting the effort in. Across all industry sectors, happy staff are more productive staff and within the legal sector, fee earners effectively act as your firm’s brand ambassadors. A smiling happy “face of the firm” is what you want your clients to see.
On the negative side, the legal sector is not immune to the “usual” types of discrimination. . Only last month, the International Bar Association published a report identifying shocking rates of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. In the wider workplace, a TUC report revealed high levels of sexual harassment and assault faced by LGBT staff.
Whilst English law provides a means of redress for those suffering from workplace discrimination; this may be small comfort for those at the receiving end. For those faced with bullying or discrimination in the workplace, I would urge you to confidentially speak to someone and look at your options for resolving the situation.
For those who feel unhappy or who are weighed down by stress -ask yourself whether you have power to change it yourself. Client confidentiality is key, but within its constraints, is there someone with whom you could share the burden (e.g. a supervisor, partner or colleague)? Should you consider a move to a different working environment, for example to a firm which is a better cultural fit for you? Are you trying to do too much, and therefore punishing yourself for failing to achieve the impossible?
Happiness and “work-life” balance isn’t something which is handed to us by someone else. Like everything worthwhile, it’s something we have to work for. Making sure that we make time to work for it, for ourselves, as well as working hard for our clients, is a constant juggle. In my view, both are goals worth pursuing.