This article explores why it is critical for family lawyers to support colleagues with mental-health challenges, how to identify when peers or clients may need help, and the need for removing the stigma around mental health issues in Hong Kong.
An Increase in Awareness
Working as a lawyer can be emotionally challenging. A recent survey undertaken by Lexis Nexis found that almost 66 percent of lawyers in the UK currently experience high levels of stress. More than 75 percent stated that stress and mental wellbeing are major issues for the profession.
Due to the nature of their work, family lawyers can be particularly vulnerable to high levels of stress. Over the past 12 months, however, there has been an explosion in awareness of wellness and mental health among family lawyers in the UK. The Law Society recently hosted a panel discussion with UK NGO Support Through Court to discuss the topic and agreed that “family lawyers are not going to be equipped to guide clients down a path to order and resolution unless they themselves stay well, healthy and emotionally protected”.
The Situation in Hong Kong
The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four of us will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in our lives. This places a special burden on employers in Hong Kong, where there are widespread stigmas and cultural factors that hinder people from talking openly about mental health. It is seen as a taboo topic and is often incorrectly linked to people being “weak” and to family backgrounds.
A recent study by mental health NGO Mind Hong Kong on Hong Kong’s attitude towards mental health found that 25 percent of respondents currently work with, or have worked with, someone with a mental health problem. Sixty-one percent have experienced depression – a significantly higher number than the typical 1/7 of a population.
Detecting Early Warning Signs
It is important for family lawyers to be able to pinpoint when someone – be it a colleague or a client - is suffering from a mental health issue so they can step in and offer support.
Dr. Hannah Reidy, CEO at Mind Hong Kong and a UK-trained clinical psychologist, suggests keeping an eye out for early risk factors including:
- Changes in behaviour
- Distraction and inability to focus on work
- Sleep and energy levels shifting
- Loss of appetite
Small changes can help safeguard mental wellbeing. Dr. Reidy also suggested simple steps such as switching off your phone before bedtime or incorporating regular exercise into your day can help lead to improved concentration and elevated mood. If the symptoms seem more severe, gently encourage the person you think needs help to seek professional advice.
Helping Yourself and Others
It is not just about helping others – family lawyers need to attend to their own wellbeing. They sometimes take on clients’ distress in a way that can be harmful and influence their private lives and their families.
Farrer & Co Senior Counsel Simon Bruce, a family lawyer with many years of experience, says it is now commonplace in the UK for firms to have programmes that promote wellness and set standards for sound mental health. His employer, for example, has its own Wellness Charter which outlines a series of guiding principles in relation to areas such as individual responsibility, culture, holiday and technology, including:
- Requiring all holiday allocations are taken, including at least one block of ten days holiday per year
- Imposing regular monitoring by line managers
- Supporting agile working eg: working from home, accommodating child pick up/drop offs etc
- Encouraging work/life balance and creating a positive culture of wellbeing at the firm
Other legal firms in the UK offer wellness innovations including counselling of all staff twice a month by a trained expert. The sessions are paid for by the firm and are confidential. Some firms offer yoga and pilates classes to lawyers.
Another positive step forward is that the family courts in the UK have been invited by the President of the Family Division to produce their own guidance on well-being. The Guidance for the Central Family Court states that “Everyone is entitled to respect, all the time”. It also states:
“Urgent means urgent. Maintaining that a hearing is urgent when it is not is queue-jumping (or worse) and adds to stress”.
There is significant work to be done to promote wellness amongst family lawyers in Hong Kong. But with stronger support from the family law community and employers in helping professionals establish personal boundaries, develop tools for resilience and be comfortable talking about mental health, we will all be taking a big step towards removing a harmful stigma.