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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

Mental Wellness and Junior Lawyers

We celebrated World Mental Health Month 2021 by posting a number of handy, practical tips on mental wellness/wellbeing from our LawCare Counsellor, Ms Sin Chei Liang. These insightful pieces have generated self-awareness and other-awareness about the invisible onslaught of mental unwellness that can sometimes lead to the invisible dangers of mental ill health.

In conjunction with the month-long campaign to commemorate World Mental Health Day 2021, I wrote the following:

“It’s Ok not to be Ok … as long as you know you are not Ok.

There is an increasingly growing awareness about mental wellness and mental health issues in Singapore especially since last year. Mental wellness or wellbeing issues if not handled optimally can lead to mental health issues (a far more serious matter). Singapore society and the Law Society is growing in general knowledge and understanding (compared to yesteryear) about this invisible enemy that can wreak havoc on minds. We are all growing in self-awareness about mental unwellness as well. The ability to discern clues (even if not self-diagnose) when one is feeling out of sorts or in emotional disequilibrium is key. Sin Chei Liang, a former lawyer in private practice turned counsellor/psychotherapist at Counselling Perspective, possesses both deep empathy and a strong skillset after counselling lawyers for a number of years now. She shares nuggets of wisdom and insight in her LawCare contribution in the attached Linked In link. Her reflections and thoughts on mental unwellness and mental wellness strategies merit reflection and thought.

In the present prolonged pandemic, another strong insight I have discerned comes from Adam Grant “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” (New York Times, 29 July 2021). He writes about “the neglected middle child of mental health” that “can dull your motivation and focus”:

“It wasn’t burnout – we still had energy. It wasn’t depression – we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”

“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Whether languishing or mentally unwell, remember that you are not alone in thinking what you think and feeling what you feel. Others are thinking and feeling that way too. Seek help. Get resources (see our Law Society’s resources here and here).

it’s ok not to be ok as long as you know you are not Ok.

[Excerpt from E-Blast sent on 8 October to Law Society Members for World Mental Health Awareness Day]

It’s OK not to be OK as long as you know you are not OK.

Our commitment to mental wellness/wellbeing was shared by a sister Bar organisation, the Law Council of Australia (LCA). President Jacoba Brasch QC and I shared about our common passion in this area. We agreed to do a joint webinar and this took place in September. In my view, the webinar featured a mature, thoughtful, refreshing and dynamic discourse among the panellists comprising the LCA and our Sin Chei Liang and Council Member, Derric Yeoh. Fresh perspectives were shared. More can be done. More must be done. Future Council teams will hopefully build in this space including an invaluable dialogue on mindfulness that our Council Member, Derric Yeoh is helping build.

While researching for my opening remarks for the LCA-Law Soc webinar, my attention was drawn to rather concerning recent research on junior lawyers in UK and some findings on the state of play in Australia and US.

The 2019 resilience and wellbeing report from the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society of England and Wales1The Law Society UK and Wales, “JLD campaign: Wellbeing” at https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/campaigns/junior-lawyers-division-campaigns/wellbeing (JLD Resilience Report 2019) revealed significant detail on the poor mental health of the junior members of the profession. The annual survey showed:

  • Over 93 per cent of young lawyers are stressed at work with almost one-quarter feeling “severe/extreme” stress.
  • Around half the respondents said they had experienced mental ill health in the month before participating in the survey. This was a substantial increase on the 38 per cent of the respondents reporting in the previous year.
  • 58 per cent considered taking time off work for mental health reasons but did not eventually do so.
  • 60 per cent of junior lawyers’ mental ill-health negatively impacted their physical health (such as being physically sick or experiencing chest pains).
  • Only one in five of the number affected/afflicted said their employer was aware that they were experiencing mental ill-health.
  • 75 per cent reported disrupted sleep and just under 60 per cent reported anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
  • Alarmingly, more than 100 young lawyers admitted to having suicidal thoughts.

The key stress factors were found to include (i) high workloads; (ii) client demands and expectations; (iii) lack of support; and (iv) ineffective management. Some 77 per cent of respondents said their firm could do more to support stress at work while 87 per cent felt their firm could provide greater help, guidance, and support to improve mental health in the workplace.

If one views the issue based on a wider time context from 2017 to 2019, for that period, over 90 per cent of junior lawyers reported experiencing negative stress in the past month with about 25 per cent of those reporting extreme or severe levels of stress.

John van der Luit-Drummond writing for the Legal 5002https://www.legal500.com/fivehundred-magazine/editors-views/your-lawyers-are-only-human/ in an article headed “Your lawyers are only human” commenting on the JLD Resilience Report 2019 observed that a recent study of 1,000 workers conducted by Insurance firm Protectivity, found lawyers to be the second most stressed professionals in the UK. In a separate study commissioned by Lexis Nexis, two-thirds of solicitors admitted feeling “highly stressed” at work.

If you think that this is only a UK issue, let me disabuse you straightaway. In Australia, a 2015 PsychSafe study found that out of all professions, lawyers have the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing. In van der Luit-Drummond’s article3Supra, note 2, the author also points out that a recent study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that 28 per cent of attorneys struggle with depression, 23 per cent suffer from stress and 19 per cent are affected by anxiety.

No similar research or study has been commissioned by the Law Society as yet. The time may be right for the Society to do so and to also consider having focus group discussions. That will also serve to de-stigmatize this topic.

In Singapore, our costs for confidential counselling via LawCare has grown exponentially this year. Anecdotally, we are aware that a significant number of our junior lawyers avail themselves of the counselling/mentoring help resources of the Society. This is understandable. In a number of cases, young lawyers are struggling to find their feet let alone way in practice. To complement our efforts in this space, from end 2019, we were especially sensitized to the twin terrors of bullying and harassment. To that end, last year, we were intentional to procure the sign-ons of major employers in the legal profession who stood in solidarity to essentially pledge a commitment for zero tolerance for bullying and harassment in their offices.

An interesting anecdote shared by van der Luit-Drummond in his article4Supra, note 2 is that “Associates debating a move to the London outpost of White Shoe firms can often be heard saying, “yeah, they pay great, but they’ll take their pound of flesh in return”. Whether or not this perception is correct, would you really want to work for an employer that only takes care of your bank balance to the detriment of your whole self?” I think the author is right. Colleagues from the junior Bar, do some soul searching and beware the Faustian bargain.

Wellbeing Wisdom

A book I have dipped into again and again, helpfully shared with me by a lawyer friend is Jerome Doraisamy “The Wellness Doctrines for Law Students & Young Lawyers” (2015 reprint). Jerome shares a depressing thought that at least one in three legal professionals suffers from depression. His own background prompted his “by lawyers, for lawyers” approach in writing the book. Over an 18-month period starting from late 2011, including one period of hospitalisation, he suffered from severe clinical depression. So he writes from the school of hard knocks to share insightful case studies, practical tools and guidance for young legal professionals to take charge of their health and wellbeing.

In his chapter on “Personalities, Part II: Overcoming our legal idiosyncrasies”, he summarises at the end of the chapter the following Wellbeing Wisdom:

  • When necessary, allow yourself to be okay with not always being number one. Be okay with occasional failure, if and when it happens. It does not reflect on you as a person or a professional.
  • Pursue interests outside of the law and add value to your personal and professional development by taking an in-depth look at your life (perspective).
  • Accept the legal environment around you for what it is and adapt your approach to best suit that environment.
  • Relax your approach to legal tasks and avoid overreacting to those tasks.
  • Seek useful and practical mentors to guide you through your vocational journey.
  • Narrow your focus to those things that you can control and discard the ones you cannot.
  • Remember that it is okay to ask questions, and request assistance, if needed.
  • Develop non-legal networks, so you can retain a holistic perspective on life, and your place in it.
  • Avoid playing office politics – be yourself; be the best legal professional you can be.

Five Practical Tips

Junior lawyers, let me leave you in closing with three practical points to add on to Jerome Doraisamy’s Wellbeing Wisdom:

  1. Avail yourself of the Law Society’s Mentorship Schemes, Career Guidance consultation or where there is a need for confidential psychosocial counselling, our LawCare Counselling services. These auxiliary support services are intended to complement what your law firm may already be providing.
  2. Form small social groups (including virtual ones). No man is an island. A small firm senior practitioner shared with me how he is part of a regular WhatsApp Group whose members check in on each other once a week. Where feasible, they used to catch up socially as safe distancing precautions permitted. This allows for excellent actual and virtual links and connections that may be especially appreciated by the extroverts among us.
  3. Have a regular dialogue with your employers/partners to share with them if your workload is excessively heavy or there is a particularly demanding client that is causing acute stress. Taking a leaf from the JLD Resilience Report 2019, the respondents requested firms to identify root causes of mental ill health and stress by (i) addressing workloads; (ii) how work is allocated; and (iii) ensuring sufficient qualified support staff are available to assist with the volume of work assigned. In the same way, be proactive in communicating with your team lead/partners if there are issues of unbalanced workload, work allocation and a need for additional personnel or support staff.

For employers/senior lawyers reading this piece, here are two practical perspectives for you to consider:

  1. Apart from proactively sussing out and tackling the issues raised in (c) above for (the reverse side of the coin), employers/partners should check in on staff (including junior lawyers)’ mental wellness/wellbeing on a regular basis. At a time when we still do not see enough of each other due to the default Working from Home for now, compounded with COVID-19 worries and uncertainties, the absence of human interaction and contact could have a deleterious effect on our mental health. This is all the more critical in some case where some lawyers have additional home or caregiving responsibilities to also juggle together with work.
  2. Law firms could generate more awareness and discussion about mental health, wellness and wellbeing issues. These are not taboo topics. COVID-19 has turned the spotlight on mental health in a greater way than in our pre-COVID era. This sharp focus has generated greater awareness, acceptance and advocacy about the issues involved. Additionally, employers should also consider building a positive workplace culture, encouraging work from home where appropriate (even beyond COVID), foster a good work-life balance and have family friendly policies. The future of your office (a separate topic) could pivot on a new normal of agility and flexibility. What may surprise you are the returns from a productivity perspective and even the strong business case for the organization all because you paid attention to the mental wellbeing and wellness of your employees that bolstered their motivation levels

In the final analysis, let’s all look out for each other and especially for the young ones. The concerns flagged in this message are not per se a COVID-19 narrative even if some of the mental health issues identified in this piece may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Instead, this is a longer-term issue we need to incise, and inquire into, with more research, surveys, focus groups discussions while always being watchful and alert about potential deterioration of mental health so as to meet that with practical “first aid” and referrals to the right resources and ports of call.

There are two lasting things we can do for our future generations. First, treat them well every day. And second, ensure they are well in every way.

President
The Law Society of Singapore