The longest month

Maintaining good mental health is key to a successful working life, which is why we’re partnering with legal sector wellbeing specialists LawCare to share advice in a series of blogs designed to support your mental welfare.

With the festive period now a dim and distant memory, but the dark nights and mornings persisting, the January blues are all too real for a lot of people. In the first of their guest posts, LawCare share tips on what to do if you feel the January blues are sticking around a little bit too long.

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For many of us January feels like the longest month of the year. Returning to work after the Christmas break can cause even the most resilient of us to feel stressed and anxious, with new targets to hit and an expectation to achieve more, do more, be better than the year before. Working in the law can be tough – long hours, high billing targets, and a competitive work environment are common.

January is a time many of us dread going to work and wonder if we’re in the right job. Added to this it’s cold and dark outside, we’re trying and failing to keep New Year’s resolutions, and it feels like a long time until payday with all our Christmas spending now hitting home.

We can all feel down in January but when the January blues hang around a bit too long it may be time to talk to someone about how you are feeling. It’s common to feel stressed at this time of the year but chronic stress increases the risk of addictive and damaging behaviour, of developing anxiety, depression and other mental and physical health problems.

Signs that you may be stressed

  • Trouble sleeping: A vicious circle: worries about work lead to lack of sleep, which makes it difficult to perform well at work.
  • Physical changes: Headaches, skin complaints, frequent colds, aching muscles and digestive problems.
  • Drinking and smoking: Turning to drinking and smoking to cope with the demands of work.
  • Eating: Comfort eating or skipping meals.
  • Mood swings: Feeling irritated and frustrated, angry one minute and feel fine the next.
  • Panic attacks: These can happen suddenly, for no clear reason. It can mean feeling sick, short of breath, shaking, sweating and experiencing a sense of unreality.

Managing stress

Stress diary
Keeping a stress diary over two or three weeks may help you to identify why you are stressed. When you feel that you’re not coping, write down how you’re feeling, including any physical symptoms. Note what you’re doing and have just been doing. You can then start looking for clues to your stress. As you work through the diary, you may realise that something that appeared insignificant at the time could be a stress trigger and you need to make changes.

Talk about it
Don’t stay silent. Legal professionals, in particular, may feel it’s a sign of weakness to admit they aren’t coping, but it’s better to address problems early, before they get out of control. Talking your problems through makes a real difference and provides reassurance you are not alone. LawCare provides a free, independent and confidential helpline offering emotional support. The charity also has a network of peer supporters, people who work in the legal profession who may have been through difficult times themselves and can offer one-to-one support, friendship and mentoring to helpline callers referred to them.

Talk informally to a trusted colleague or your supervisor if you feel they might be helpful. Refer to your diary notes of triggers for stress or aspects of work you are finding overwhelming. Many callers find it difficult to tell their employers that they are stressed, fearing they will be unsympathetic. But when the stress escalates and perhaps becomes a problem, many partners, colleagues and supervisors say they had been unaware of the situation and would have offered support if they had known. Make sure they know.

If the stress is largely a response to your work being criticised, make a list of those criticisms and ask for a meeting with your supervisor to clarify what you are doing wrong and how you can improve. Analyse their responses. Are the criticisms justified or unfair? If justified, work out how to address the issue and request support and training if appropriate.

Tips for managing stress

• Try to be objective – what is causing you stress?
• Talk informally to someone you trust or call the LawCare helpline
• Make an appointment to see your GP
• Prioritise: don’t over commit; learn to say “no” or “I can’t do that until next week unless I drop something else”
• Use your full holiday entitlement at work; take a lunch break and short breaks during the day
• Do one thing at a time; break complex tasks down into manageable chunks
• Eat healthily, exercise, avoid alcohol and smoking
• Panic attacks: try to keep calm, slow your breathing, wait for it to pass
• Think through your options: should you change job within the legal profession or consider a different career entirely?

LawCare promotes and supports good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. For more information, advice and support visit their website or call the free LawCare helpline on 0800 279 8888.

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