Our lives have been under a great deal of pressure over the last few years. With dealing with the impact of Covid at home and within our workplaces, to inflationary pressures and severe energy costs, to seeing the devastation of the Ukrainian crisis, it’s fair to say that our resilience levels have been well and truly tested. So much so, in fact, that symptoms of depression, anxiety and other potentially debilitating conditions have sadly almost doubled in the UK during the pandemic.
And of course, we are all human. No matter what profession we work in, or what our responsibilities might be, we can all feel the impact of ill mental health and increased stress from time to time.
But the thing is, legal professionals can often take on the burden of stress from their clients too on top of everything they are dealing with personally. They may find themselves listening to clients reveal their financial and legal woes, becoming a confidant on topics that their clients might not even talk to their families about and helping them through some incredibly tough and emotive situations.
Does this perhaps come with the territory, especially for those working directly with clients in a high pressured and highly emotive environment? Well, maybe. But let’s not forget the strain that this can take on the solicitors themselves too.
You may well have heard the question “who cares for the carer?”. It’s an important one. And one I would like to put to you, too. Not least, because I believe it is also relevant in the legal profession as well, especially given the rising levels of mental health issues that lawyers have been witnessing within their clients.
Let’s just look into this a little more and, specifically, the importance of legal professionals being able to identify vulnerability and reduced mental capacity within their clients. We saw in 2015 that the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA) highlighted the need for the legal services industry to do more to ensure that vulnerable customers, and that those that lacked mental capacity were identified and appropriately supported. More recently, the SRA has spoken out in support of the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) measures around duty of care to the vulnerable. This outlined that financial advice firms should take action to understand and assess the needs of their vulnerable clients, including those that lack capacity. It has also now stated it will consider client vulnerability when investigating practitioner misconduct, too. Certainly, the SRA’s support, coupled with the FCA’s measures, are testament to how much the pressure is increasing for on legal professionals to take this seriously and, indeed, demonstrate their duty of care. I think, given the above, the chances are that most solicitors may well have already assisted a vulnerable client.
For solicitors, being able to identify the warning signs of vulnerability, and then referring their clients on for an assessment if required, is absolutely vital. They will need to be able to demonstrate, beyond doubt, that their client has the clarity and capacity to make their own decisions, in a way that can both satisfy the SRA and hold up under clinical scrutiny too. However, financial vulnerability can be hard to identify beyond physical health and life-event triggers, putting undue pressure on legal professionals who are not trained to identify what are often mental health and psychological conditions. Plus, it can be even harder to spot client vulnerability and reduced capacity if that person themselves is dealing with their own issues too.
In short, if a solicitor is not in the right frame of mind to be able to pick up on financial vulnerabilities and reduced mental capacity in their clients due to their own mental health issues, the results for all parties could be, frankly, pretty devastating.
Certainly, legal professionals have a safeguarding duty to identify potentially vulnerable clients and thus it is essential that they themselves look after their own mental health too.
Here are five ways that you (as a legal professional) can look after your own mental health, so that you can, in turn, help others.
- Concentrate on what you can control: It may feel that there is a lot that is out of your control right now. But the important thing is to concentrate on the things you can control. Sticking to routines can also help us to manage uncertainty, as can setting goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time based) too. Be careful that you don’t set yourself goals that are too difficult to fulfil. This will only make things feel worse. Set goals and targets that you can achieve, and then allow yourself to feel a sense of achievement when you achieve them. It’s important to congratulate yourself on your achievements, rather than berating yourself on what you haven’t done.
- Healthy body, healthy mind: Getting regular exercise can help ease stress, boost your mood and improve your self-esteem. Where possible, aim for 30 minutes of activity daily. This needn’t feel like a mammoth task – even a brisk walk will do the trick. Aim to eat well; focus on eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables and drinking plenty of water. You will be amazed at how much better you can feel in your mind if your body is healthy. Alongside moving more, be sure to get plenty of sleep. Feeling tired will only increase your stress and any negative thoughts you might have. Aim for between seven and nine hours per night where possible.
- A problem shared: Turning a problem around in your mind isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, it’s important to share your story and talk to others. Sharing your thoughts with someone else can often help you reflect on it in a more logical way. If you don’t feel ready to talk about it out loud, perhaps consider writing your feelings down on paper or in a journal.
- Take time for you: Where possible, take time to relax and give your mind a break from worrying or overthinking. Meditating, breathing exercises, mindfulness, practicing yoga or even just taking long bath can all be great ways to relieve stress and restore some balance to your life. The key here is just taking some time for yourself without any distractions. We all need some time for self-care, and it’s only when we care for ourselves that allows us to be able to give back to others.
- Upskill and spot the signs: In being more aware of your own mental health, you can also help to spot the signs of ill mental health in others too. For instance, you might wish to consider becoming a mental health first aider. Taking a dedicated course on mental health can help you to recognise and respond to the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions, and effectively guide your colleagues towards the right support. Mental health awareness is something that many organisations value highly nowadays, so not only can you help others who might be suffering, but it’s a fantastic transferable skill to have under your belt.
We all have a lot on our shoulders right now, that much is undeniable. But to be able to deal with the stresses and strains as a solicitor, it is essential that you prioritise your own mental health first and foremost. Only then can you spot the signs in your clients and provide them with the relevant support.