Lawyers seek a more effective response to increased levels of anxiety post-pandemic

Chris Owen is a partner at Penningtons Manches Cooper, co-chair of the European Forum of the International Bar Association, and chair of the ERF Mental Wellbeing Working Party. He discusses why lawyers are seeking a more effective response from the profession to increased levels of anxiety as offices consider re-opening post the pandemic.

Anxious, stressed woman working at office desk

Now is a very anxious time for many within the legal profession.

We’re slowly moving out of our third lockdown after months of remote working and social distancing. Some are dealing with compromised health and bereavement.

Many have not seen any significant let up in their pre-COVID working patterns with long hours, a heavy workload and the requirement to be ‘always on’, as well as the added pressures of more traditional caring roles within the family.

Across the profession, members have had to engage with the technology of a new digitalised world and a growing sense of emotional disconnection from the workplace.

As offices gradually re-open, considerable levels of uncertainty remain about the hybrid nature of the re-entry into the post-pandemic workplace.

Recent research suggests that residual anxiety over coronavirus may have compounded pre-existing levels of anxiety and led some to develop compulsive hygiene habits and the avoidance of public places.

These maladaptive behaviours are based around obsessive worrying and threat avoidance which could potentially prevent re-integrating into the outside world.

Findings from the recent International Bar Association (IBA) survey on mental wellbeing in the legal profession show that along with fatigue and disrupted sleep, anxiety was the most commonly experienced health issue by respondents (56% of all replies).

At the same time, LawCare reports that support for anxiety has seen a bigger increase over any other issue.

In 2020, the number of contacts looking for support for anxiety more than doubled and the pattern is continuing this year. Contacts between January and April 2021 were almost double the number of contacts about anxiety for the same period last year.

This is the context in which members of the profession are seeking a more effective response to these increased levels of anxiety and to the poor mental health outcomes that can result.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety exists on a spectrum between a reaction to a stressful situation and, at the other extreme, a medical disorder where we become overwhelmed by excessive worrying (such as obsessive-compulsive, post-traumatic stress and general anxiety disorder).

Whilst these may fall into different categories, they all have one thing in common – excessive worrying that affects our thoughts and feelings and has physical symptoms.

With milder forms of anxiety, we may not even be conscious of them other than through a potential range of physical symptoms including:

  • insomnia
  • an inability to concentrate
  • irritability
  • shortness of breath
  • a racing heart
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • high blood pressure

These symptoms are often exacerbated by a poor diet and lack of physical activity. They can have serious implications for our medical health as well as for our social connections and relationships.

Unless properly treated, high levels of anxiety over an extended period can lead to chronic stress. It can also have a dramatic impact on our daily lives, with a loss of a sense of connection both with ourselves and with the people around us. It may be difficult to focus on where we are or who we are with.

Ultimately, anxiety can lead either to emotional exhaustion or to a process of depersonalisation where we develop a sense of cynical detachment from everyone and everything around us.

In turn, this can create a toxic environment in the workplace with a detrimental effect both for ourselves and our work colleagues.

Individual coping strategies

Without treatment, many seek to cope with chronic levels of anxiety through a range of avoidance techniques including self-medication with alcohol and/or drugs. In practice, most avoidance and suppression techniques exacerbate the anxiety and resulting emotional pain.

Where the levels of anxiety create a serious medical disorder, psychiatric interventions may be necessary.

However, with many forms of anxiety which do not constitute a serious medical disorder, emotionally focused coping skills have been shown to be effective in treatment. This involves developing skills in emotional self-awareness and compassion in dealing with our own anxiety and that of others.

The practice is based on the idea that anxiety should not be considered as shameful or a personal weakness.

Anxiety, like any other emotion, should be seen as a critical part of what it is to be human and an aid to help us navigate our way through the challenges we meet in life. Our job is not to suppress or seek to control our anxiety or be judgmental towards it.

Through a process of self-reflection, we come to appreciate that anxiety is not about who we are (an anxious person) but where we are (a set of anxious thoughts and feelings that we can let come and then let them go).

With this changed perspective, we can acknowledge and accept the psychological component of anxiety as an inevitable part of a high intensity working environment.

We can learn to respond to our anxiety with a mental attitude of kindness and compassion. And by doing this, we can transform the way we relate to our anxiety.

The Law Society of Ireland recognises the critical importance of training in these psychological skills. The third compulsory pillar of their professional practice course is the ‘psychology of the profession’. It recognises the importance of these skills both in promoting mental wellbeing but also in encouraging resilience and creativity.

In the UK, regulators and educators need to consider what equivalent role they can play in helping to ensure new entrants into the profession are taught these critical skills.

The need for the profession to engage with structural inequalities and cultural challenges

In this post-pandemic world, it’s no longer sufficient to place the onus on the individual practitioner to support their own mental wellbeing and deal with high levels of anxiety.

We need to shift the conversation away from seeing mental wellbeing as a nice-to-have self-care issue. Instead, we need to understand it from a broader group and institutional perspective.

Findings from the IBA wellbeing survey show that female lawyers, minority ethnic groups, the disabled and younger lawyers are disproportionately impacted by mental wellbeing issues. Levels of anxiety for lawyers between the ages of 25 to 35, for example, are significantly higher than for any other age group.

The profession needs to engage actively with the challenges highlighted by this research.

This is the only way to identify the systemic issues and the structural inequalities that exist across the entire lifecycle of the legal career (from education and training through to practice and regulation) and which make the high levels of anxiety such a problematic issue for large sections of the profession.

The profession also needs to consider the cultural challenges that these high levels of anxiety reveal.

Since the early days of lockdown, the profession has been adept at introducing the technological innovations necessary to cope with remote working. It has, however, been far less effective in changing the overall workplace culture.

As one respondent from the IBA wellbeing survey comments: “Our ‘client first’ mentality means we sacrifice our own physical and mental health in order to meet the clients' goals without recognising the impact (both long-term and short-term) this has on ourselves and the health and wellbeing of our teams.”

As a result, many interventions to help junior members of staff during the pandemic to promote their mental wellbeing and to manage their workloads have been ineffective.

Junior members take their cues from leadership and if leaders are not seen to be providing emotional leadership by actively managing their own mental wellbeing effectively, juniors will remain hesitant to do so.

Respondents from the IBA wellbeing survey, for example, attached far greater importance to the group culture within the workplace than they did to individual initiatives to reduce workloads.

They were looking for increased levels of openness around discussing mental wellbeing in the workplace and a culture of mutual respect that addresses poor behaviour and demonstrates a commitment to mental wellbeing.

The emotionally healthy workplace

As we head back to the office and explore new hybrid ways of working, we also need to find new ways of sharing and connecting as well as motivating a new and diverse generation of lawyers.

One critical element of this is in promoting an emotionally healthy workplace in which lawyers have the skills to cope with high levels of anxiety and where mental wellbeing forms a natural part of the conversation.

As another respondent to the IBA survey commented: “Mental health is not just something that you can turn off and on with a switch. It’s about a genuine commitment from the top down, and a continuous commitment.”

This focus also makes sense from the perspective of the legal institution itself.

The emotionally healthy workplace becomes a critical building block in establishing a strong sense of community within the group and a ‘psychologically safe’ workplace.

It helps to provide the necessary mental wellbeing support when levels of anxiety are running high (with greater productivity, less absenteeism and reduced risks of mistakes). And it avoids the financial and reputational cost, as well as the human cost in failing to provide that support.

In an increasingly competitive environment, an emotionally healthy workplace also helps to retain and motivate talent and potentially provides a genuine differentiator in the market for the legal institution itself.

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