Brendan Street
24 August 2021

Support without judgment

The psychological load for lawyers of a hybrid workplace by Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health

As restrictions ease and many of us return to the office, the workplace looks a little different. The success of enforced remote working over the pandemic has seen many businesses now adopting a hybrid approach, not least law firms where hybrid working is fast becoming the norm. While this provides benefits in a potentially greater work-life balance, it also brings new challenges. For many balancing a hybrid of the two is proving stressful.

Those navigating jobs in a notoriously stressful industry like law risk the situation becoming unmanageable. Lawyers rank among the most stressed professionals – with 63 percent reporting dealing with stress daily. Without the right support in place from employers and managers, individuals are at risk of Hybrid-burn-out.

Understanding hybrid burnout

Returning to on-site work and maintaining remote working are both uniquely stressful. Office work means commutes which may now seem more exhausting than ever, social stresses of a busy environment feel somehow ‘turned-up’, whilst remote working can encourage an unhealthy ‘always-on’ culture. Juggling the two is leaving many with a ‘hybrid headache’, simultaneously enduring the stresses of both approaches as well as the disrupted routine of splitting time between the office and home.

As a result, an increasing number of lawyers, particularly young lawyers, are burning out – a phenomenon now recognised by the WHO as the result of ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Those unable to nurture healthy hybrid habits are left in a constant heightened state of stress, impacting their physical and mental wellbeing. When we’re unable to switch off from ‘fight or flight’ mode, we experience physical symptoms including nausea, fatigue and musculoskeletal problems, as well as mental ill-health including anxiety and depression.

Unhelpful cycles can then develop. Ill health negatively impacts work performance and productivity, leading to further stress and, often, overworking. This often drives unhelpful behaviours like ‘leavism’ (taking leave to catch up on work backlog) and in the legal industry, this has driven a ‘culture of presenteeism’(showing up for work without being productive), which only adds fuel to the fire and prevents individuals from making positive changes.

Without the right support from employers, individuals may continue this spiral of negative behaviours, exacerbating symptoms of stress and leading to negative outcomes for both the individual and the business.

A problem on the rise

Recent research suggests widespread remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on employee mental health, with loneliness and mental distress among the commonly reported symptoms. Return to the office was associated with a return to normality and our maximum mental fitness. This isn’t the case and instead many of us are facing new challenges, balancing those posed by remote working and the additional stresses of office life.

The effects of unmanaged stress are especially felt in the legal sector. LawCare recently reported an 86 percent rise in calls from young lawyers seeking support for stress, citing increased working hours during the pandemic as a common cause.

The hybrid headache is exacerbating existing stress. Remote employees often overwork, as the lines between work and home life become increasingly blurred. Many will return to the office with this unhealthy habit, as employees struggle to define boundaries for either home working habits or office life.

So how can employers/managers support their team to attain hybrid engagement?

Noticing the signs

Burnt out employees are often reluctant to speak about their situation. In addition to perceived stigma around mental health, employees may also fear the career consequences of admitting to experiencing work stress. Reports from LawCare suggest legal professionals are often scared to engage in conversations about their mental health in occupational settings due to the fast-paced and goal-oriented workplace culture.

Employees worry that admitting to having difficulty with the stresses of work will not only alienate them from their peers but may also see them lose out to their competition when it comes to promotions and career progression. In a sector like law, where sometimes it feels that “It’s not good to talk”, it’s important that partners in charge can recognise the signs of burnout in others – as well as themselves – and feel confident approaching them and offering support.

Stress is common in the workplace and isn’t always unhealthy. In short bursts, it helps us concentrate and perform under pressure…pressing the accelerator when needed. However, long-term stress leads to burn-out – like continually over revving an engine leading to damage and reduced performance.

Changes in performance include a measurable decline in standards of work, and changes in behaviour and mood such as withdrawal, irritability, chronic tiredness, poor sleep, pessimism, hopelessness (“Nothing I do makes a difference”), and an inability to concentrate. Employers noticing these symptoms in colleagues should feel comfortable supporting them, from simply asking ‘how are you feeling today?’, ‘is there anything I can do to help?’, to signposting them towards more formal support.

At Nuffield Health, we’ve delivered Emotional Literacy Training to all staff, equipping them with skills to hold conversations confidently around mental health. This has created a culture where conversations about mental health are welcome and expected. Not only are individuals capable of supporting others but they are more likely to seek support for themselves at the earliest signs of distress – before they become burnt out.

Relieving the hybrid headache

Law firm leaders looking to support their teams in the hybrid working world must understand the stresses posed and help to alleviate them. For example, remote working can cause ‘working from home guilt’, with employees increasing their working hours to compensate for the benefit of home working.

Managers should outline remote working expectations clearly to ease these worries, letting individuals know they aren’t expected to work longer hours just because they’re not commuting. Many overworked young lawyers worry about the need to be ‘always-on’ call – especially when working from home. Industry research suggests many legal professionals feel especially pressured to overwork due to understaffing and increasing billable client hours. Staff then strive to stay active and responsive for clients at all hours, including early in the morning and into the evenings. The result is an inability to ever fully ‘switch-off’ from work and draw a line between work and home life.

Law firms have a responsibility to help their team manage these boundaries, for example by reiterating that they aren’t expected to reply to emails out of hours and encouraging them to add their office hours to their emails, so clients know when they can expect a reply.

This way, employees establish personal time each day when they can switch off. Advise employees to mark that work has finished for the day. For home workers this may mean shutting your laptop putting it away in a drawer, switching off your work phone, closing the door on your work room, and going out for a walk, to mark the end of the working day.

When we work, our stress levels naturally rise (this is what makes us alert and productive). Employers should help staff maintain a buffer zone, for stress levels to return to normal before trying to sleep. Managers can also direct staff to advice regarding sleep hygiene.

This means leaving the bed for sleep only, and not working from it, as this creates stressful subconscious associations with working. Home workers should avoid the temptation to complete work admin in bed…’bedmin’ is bad for your sleep pattern.

Embracing a routine can reduce unhelpful ‘what if?’ thinking patterns that exacerbate stress. For example, nominating ‘office days’ helps employees manage their expectations for the week ahead. Employers should also signpost individuals towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behaviour therapy sessions, which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them understand and break unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns to cope in new and uncertain situations.

Ultimately, these encouraging healthier habits help us remain at our peak physical and mental fitness as we enter a new working landscape with a degree of uncertainty.

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