It’s no secret that life as a lawyer can be stressful.
Statistics show that almost one-third of lawyers experience high levels of psychological distress – well above the average of 13% in the general population. And in certain stages of your career, it can be even harder to balance the complexities, nuances and challenges of life as a lawyer.
But there’s good news. It’s never too late to develop wellness strategies and reduce workplace stress while increasing your resilience and wellbeing.
Here are five tips to help you navigate the stresses of legal practice and get you on the path to wellness in the legal profession:
1. Look after your mind and body
There is plenty of evidence to show that regular exercise plays a key role in mental wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be onerous, and even walking can be effective. It’s also a quick, easy and a cheap way to maintain physical health. Lawyers are notorious for working long hours, so be sure to take regular breaks from your desk. Leave the office for lunch, or even take short walks around your office floor.
It’s easy to turn to fast food when you’re working late or stressed. So try having healthier snacks on standby. Perhaps swap out the chocolate bars for the almonds and have fruit nearby. A good overall diet might include things like colourful fruits and vegetables, high fibre foods and fish. It’s all about balance, and you’ll find that a good diet impacts positively on your sleep, energy, concentration and overall wellbeing.
Time and again research has emphasised the link between sleep habits and wellbeing. We know instinctively that a good night’s sleep will help us function better and think clearer. But in practice, many of us are guilty of bad sleep habits for which we pay the next day.
Most adults need between six to eight hours of sleep per night, and it’s best to go to sleep and wake up at consistent hours each day. The blue light from your devices can mess with your sleep cycle, so be sure to switch off phones, TVs and laptops well before bed time.
Activities for the mind
Many lawyers have effectively used strategies such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga and breathing exercises to maintain mental wellbeing and better manage their tasks and decision making during stressful periods. There are plenty of great apps to download which can guide you through these activities, such as “Smiling Mind”, “Calm”, and “Breathe”.
Listening to music is another simple strategy that can have enormous positive effects on your mental health as a way of lifting your mood. Listening to music while preparing for a case or completing an important task may help reduce the pressure in the moment. It may also be beneficial to step away from your work and listen to some music.
The trick is to identify those self-care activities which align with your personal interests and lifestyle, as you are more likely to put self-care strategies into practice when they are tailored to the way you live your life. With all activities for the mind, they rarely work as ‘one-offs’. To be most effective, they really need to be incorporated into a daily or weekly routine. Use your diary to make sure you book in time for yourself.
2. Establish a support network
It is so important to connect with family, friends and colleagues to debrief, stay grounded and keep the ‘life-outside-of-law’ balance. Whether it’s a formal debrief, short coffee break, or catching up for a meal – staying connected with the people who matter in your life is one of the most crucial components of the wellness strategy. Sometimes you may want a neutral sounding board to vent about a tough day at the office, or get advice on how to handle a delicate matter. Other times you might just need a few hours with people who don’t talk about the law so that you can let your mind escape for a while. The all-consuming passion for the law can sometimes lead to relationships being left behind. But making time to maintain and strengthen bonds with our supporters and networks is one of the best ways to promote good health on all levels.
However, there are some things we just can’t talk to our friends, family and colleagues about. For those moments, it’s important to identify reliable and trustworthy health professionals who you can turn to. Most law societies around the country offer complimentary or subsidised counselling services for members, and they all provide a wealth of wellness resources on their websites. Some employers also offer a free confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for their staff. National organisations such as Beyond Blue, SANE, and Lifeline are also valuable to include in your network.
3. Make time for hobbies, socialising & volunteering
The law can be all-consuming. A tried and tested technique is to take time to do the things you really love. Are you a movie buff? Make time to go to the cinema. Perhaps you’re a music lover? Make time to get to a concert or join a band. Have you been dying to learn a new skill? Join a language class or sign up for a soccer club. It can be as big or as small as you like, but it’s important to make the effort to embrace new experiences, acquaintances, peer groups and skills. And many of these activities may overlap with what we’ve already discussed – such as spending time with friends and exercising.
Many lawyers have also benefited greatly from volunteering, both in legal and non-legal contexts. Stepping outside of ourselves to help others can often have a profound effect on our wellbeing. In a legal setting, you may want to sign up for a local community legal centre. But it can often be beneficial to step into a different environment and volunteer for a local charity, community group or activist organisation. If there’s nothing local that gets you excited, consider larger organisations such as Red Cross, Salvation Army, Rotary, Animal Welfare, or Wilderness Society.
4. Get away
One of the best ways to cope with work is to get far, far away from it. Taking regular breaks from work will help to clear your mind and keep you refreshed. In the short term, it can be as simple as taking a walk for lunch. In the medium term, perhaps you can schedule a weekend road trip with friends or family. In the longer term, maybe you can start planning a holiday. Having a trip to look forward to can have mental health benefits long before you even get on the plane.
5. Set goals and regularly reflect
Wellness strategies only work if they fit in with your tastes, lifestyle and personality. So take the time to write down all the things that give you joy and meaning. Then make a plan to incorporate them into your regular schedule. It’s important to set short-term and long-term goals to stay inspired, prevent burnout and maintain an all-important work/life balance.
Once you’ve got a wellness plan in place, it’s a good idea to regularly check-in with yourself monthly, half-yearly or annually. You can do this on your own or with a friend or colleague.
By putting these strategies in place, you’ll be setting yourself up for a healthier legal career.
 Norm Kelk et al, Courting the Blues: Attitudes Towards Depression in Australian Law Students and Lawyers (Brain & Mind Institute, 2009).