Recently I was feeling unmotivated about work. I was literally pen pushing and getting the bare minimum done in the office. I recognised the burnout, an episode I had a couple of years ago.
Being a perfectionist and a self-declared Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) sufferer, an unkempt e-mail inbox, missed telephone calls, unanswered Whatsapps and SMSes make me stressed and causes sleepless nights. I have only now realised that other lawyers have equally chaotic lives. However, no one talks about it and everyone makes their life look perfect.
Mental health, like physical health, is important. Unlike physical ailments, mental conditions are not obvious. The first Singapore Mental Health Study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health in 2010 found that 9.3% of Singapore residents have at least one mood or anxiety disorder during their adult life. The two most common mental conditions faced in Singapore are Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and OCD. MDD affected one in 17 persons while OCD affected one in 33 of us.
Depression is not noticeable in the sufferer or to others around them. I did not know that I was suffering from mild depression for most of my life until five years ago. There were periods of my life when I felt suicidal; the first incident was when I was 18. At the end of 2013, the suicidal thought became real when I contemplated standing in the centre of the road. Another thought, for the first time in my life, of seeking medical help crossed my mind whilst I was thinking of getting on to the road. Constant medical care and support have since helped me to find a cure.
Burnout obviously does not affect young lawyers only. I can now understand how they feel having gone through it myself. When I spoke to a friend about my burnout, my counsellor friend said, “It is time you start thinking about yourself and start giving to yourself”. As lawyers, we are always thinking about our clients, our families, others and not much about ourselves.
Working hard was a value my parents drilled into me since I was a young boy. When I started my career in a large firm, the work hard culture continued to be perpetuated and has been instilled in me till today. Working anything less than 12 hours a day is a strange feeling to me. On the rare days when I get home during daylight I feel weird. Am I not working hard enough, I ask myself. What will I do with the long evening ahead of me? The values one learns in childhood carries into adulthood.
My psychologist once asked me how I would describe myself if I were to remove the label of family lawyer. When I gave her a bewildered look, she persisted and asked what I would like to do in life besides work. Her message was that I needed to find a meaningful life outside of work. “Your work defines who you are, nothing else,” she said. According to her, professionals in caring fields like lawyers, doctors and mental health professionals need to take regular short breaks for rejuvenation.
She suggested that I take a day off in the week to be with myself. I only managed to take one day off – which was largely spent organising an event. Realising that taking a day off was too difficult for me, I decided to have blocks of “me time” instead, where I sit alone in Starbucks people watching or reading a book, mall trawling or going for walks. I must say that being alone help me to recharge.
Our nephews and nieces often tell the Wife and I to chill. We have not figured out what chill means to us. Recovering from burnout takes time, especially when so much of life is going on around us. Support from family and friends makes it an enduring process. When I recovered from the burn out, I was surprised that I could go back to the long hours in the office with a feeling of ease, coupled with an awareness to take care of myself at the same time.
When I spoke to several seniors in the profession, it seems that not having interests or hobbies outside of law practice are the reasons why they keep long hours in the office. For some, it is seeing to the present and future needs of their family that makes them push themselves so hard.
For me now, small joys like keeping on top of my work folders, handling all pressing work, enjoying a coffee, going back home and watching Toggle makes my day complete.