Small firms

Mental health support for sole practitioners and small firms

LawCare is a legal mental health charity. In this article, they discuss some of the common symptoms of stress they’re hearing from the small firms community during the coronavirus pandemic. They also explain how they can help you if you’re struggling.

Stressed woman in office

The last year has been challenging for all of us, both personally and professionally.

It has been particularly challenging for sole practitioners and small firms, who have had to adapt very quickly to a new way of working.

For some, the move to remote working has been a real challenge. A few of the struggles that LawCare has been hearing about include:

  • getting up to speed with new technology quickly
  • feeling isolated at home
  • trying to work and homeschool simultaneously

The pandemic itself has also created a great deal of anxiety about our health and the future of businesses.

The boundaries between work and home have become blurred, making it much harder to switch off from work.

Many are working longer hours than ever before.

Struggles of working as a sole practitioner

Working as a sole practitioner or in a small firm can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable, although it is not without its challenges:

  • it can be isolating having no one to bounce ideas off or chat to about work, which means it can feel overwhelming
  • there’s the financial burden resting on your shoulders, which can cause significant stress, especially if you cannot work due to illness or other commitments
  • dealing with difficult clients or tricky personalities can also be harder in a small team or office

The mental health issues we hear about

LawCare have been contacted by many legal professionals who are:

  • overthinking and unable to sleep properly
  • dealing with a heavy workload and drinking too much every evening
  • suffering from extreme anxiety and imposter syndrome
  • working with vulnerable or traumatised clients, which is affecting their own wellbeing
  • making mistakes and worrying about possible disciplinary action

The stress response

Many lawyers are experiencing stress at unmanageable levels.

Our stress response is designed to be used in short bursts of up to 30 minutes to escape a threat to survival.

For example, a boost of cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenalin gets our heart racing and blood pumping, enabling us to make a speedy getaway from a wild animal chasing us.

These days, a wild animal has been replaced by a difficult client, an overflowing inbox, or worry about the future of the firm. Yet our stress response is the same.

If you are existing in a near-constant state of stress, it can lead to an increased risk of burn-out: defined as chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed over time.

In addition to the day-to-day challenges lawyers face, we also see certain personality traits in lawyers that can contribute to poor mental health:

  • an analytical mind
  • impatience
  • extremely driven
  • perfectionism
  • a constant sense of urgency
  • overly self-critical

These can all be particularly useful in a legal setting but damaging in your private life.

Often, lawyers find it hard to admit they are having a tough time and not coping, for fear of showing weakness.

Smaller firms may not have the mental health and wellbeing programmes for staff that larger law firms provide. As such it’s vital that sole practitioners and lawyers working in smaller firms are tuned into their mental health and wellbeing, and aware of some ways in which their work, and the pandemic, can affect them.

Warning signs of stress

Here are some signs that you, or someone you work with, may need to make some changes or seek help:

  • trouble sleeping: a vicious circle – worries about work lead to lack of sleep, which makes it difficult to perform well at work
  • physical changes: headaches, skin complaints, frequent colds, aching muscles, and digestive problems
  • drinking and smoking: turning to drinking and smoking to cope with the demands of work
  • eating: comfort eating or skipping meals
  • mood swings: feeling irritated and frustrated one minute, and fine the next
  • panic attacks: these can happen suddenly, for no clear reason; it can mean feeling sick, being short of breath, shaking, sweating and experiencing a sense of unreality

Tips for managing stress

While it’s true that stressful situations sometimes cannot be changed, you can learn to manage stress, so it does not negatively impact your health:

  • stick to a routine and have a clear boundary between work and home – avoid checking emails at 10pm, working longer hours is often counter-productive
  • take regular breaks, including a lunch break, and try to go for a walk every day – this may seem impossible, but you will do better work if you do
  • to avoid overwhelm, do one thing at a time and break complex tasks down into manageable chunks – disable notifications so you can focus
  • breathe – if you can feel yourself getting anxious, try taking 10 deep breaths, inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for 10 – it can make you feel calmer
  • it’s easy to let healthy habits slip when we are stressed, but make sure you eat well, get to bed at a reasonable time and find time to do some exercise – these are essential basic requirements of staying mentally healthy
  • book some time off work; most of us are exhausted from carrying the emotional load of the last few months – we all need time to rest, relax, recuperate, reset and have something to look forward to
  • talk to someone – talking your problems through makes a real difference and provides reassurance you are not alone. Contact the free, independent and confidential LawCare support service on 0800 279 6888, email LawCare, or visit the LawCare website
  • make an appointment with your GP

About LawCareLawCare

LawCare offers a free, confidential emotional support service to all legal professionals, their support staff and families. They’re here to listen, with helpline calls, emails and webchats answered in confidence by trained staff and volunteers who have first-hand experience of working in the law. They also have a network of peer supporters.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS