Thursday, 11 August 2011

What I Learned from Being Ill

Last week I caught ‘flu. Not an overblown cold but real, honest-to-goodness genuine influenza. I went to bed on Wednesday night and apart from staggering to the bathroom, didn’t get up again until Sunday evening.

Now that I am, for the most part, recovered, I have been looking back and trying to find something to learn from the whole painful experience, or something positive I can draw from it. I don’t want it to sound as though I was a philosophical adventurer, questing across the counterpane of my sickbed. I wasn’t; I was ill and it was horrible. But I might as well make those days of misery count for something. So here’s what I learned:

  1. Your health really is the most important thing. It may be clich├ęd, but it is true. Value it, protect it, and don’t take it for granted. That goes for mental health as well as physical. You may tell yourself that you’re tough, that you can do those late nights, push yourself that little bit further, but you have no idea just how powerful are the forces (and I don’t just mean viruses) which can suddenly and unexpectedly humble you. 
  2. Allow others to help you. As I languished in my sickbed, my six-year-old made me a succession of Get Well cards, my ten-year-old took it upon herself to bring me iced water every couple of hours and my fifteen-year-old got the little ones their meals. I think they all rather enjoyed their roles and responsibilities and having the opportunity to be useful. During a crisis, allow others to step up and show what they can do. In fact, why wait for a crisis? 
  3. It’s good to be ahead. Luckily I didn’t have to worry too much about taking a couple of days’ sick leave, because I was well up-to-date with all my work and there were systems in place to allow others to deal with anything urgent that might crop up. Not that I’m going against point 1, or advocating being some kind of super-lawyer, but if you can keep on top of your work and prioritise effectively, then it gives you some peace of mind when the unexpected happens. Perhaps each day you would do well to finish by asking, “What if I’m not able to come in tomorrow?”
I’m not completely recovered yet, and the post-viral fatigue stage isn’t much fun, but I am very much appreciating the little things – like being able to stand up long enough to take a shower – and hope to finally catch up on the housework at some point next week. Definitely getting the ‘flu jab this Autumn, though.

If you’re struggling with illness, whether physical or mental, remember that LawCare is here to offer you free and completely confidential support and advice.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)
1800 303145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Playing a Numbers Game?

Today LawCare passed a milestone – 200 case files opened so far in 2011. In real terms, that means 200 lawyers struggling with workplace stress, clinical depression, addiction to alcohol and / or drugs and a myriad of related problems, have called one of our free and confidential helplines and received assistance, advice, referral to professional help where appropriate, and ongoing support, often from one of our volunteers.

In LawCare’s first year of operation – 1997 – 60 case files were opened. Since then the number of helpline calls has risen almost every year. The result of this has meant that we, the LawCare staff, expect the numbers to continue to rise each year. We even become anxious if calls are lagging behind last year’s figure, almost as though we want to reach some imagined target.

But unlike many who work in the legal profession, we don’t have a target to reach. We’re not playing a numbers game, and we don’t have to “beat” 517 case files by the end of December in order to feel we’ve achieved something worthwhile. There are several reasons for this.



  • We have little to no control over who calls the helpline. Whilst we do all we can to publicise our service, it’s a very personal and difficult decision for a suffering lawyer to seek help. We cannot “drum up trade” by encouraging people to call if they don’t want to.

  • In addition, we have no control over the issues that cause lawyers to need to phone us. From changes in practice rules to difficulty getting PI Insurance, many of the issues which cause stress and anxiety are part of the professional world. When things are going well we will naturally have fewer calls. Our helpline call numbers peaked at the height of the recession when 25% of calls we received were from lawyers facing redundancy.

  • The statistics for our website also came in today. Over 500 people a day are looking at www.lawcare.org.uk. Many of them may be seeking help and support with issues which are troubling them, and, due to finding it anonymously on our website, do not need to call the helpline.

  • In the first half of this year we have given preventative education training to over 2,000 lawyers. Our most popular seminar is called “Stress Recognition and Management” and aims to teach professionals to cope with the stress they experience at work. Since LawCare began doing this training in 2004, over 32,000 lawyers have had this training, so that’s potentially 32,000 people who have been equipped to handle the issues most often raised on our helpline and who will thus will not need to phone for help.

  • We don’t want lawyers to struggle or suffer stress. We don’t want them to turn to alcohol or drugs. Each of our case files is a person feeling such distress and despair that they need help to cope. One of my first tasks of each day is to read through the previous day’s case files. It’s not a task I enjoy - many callers are in desperate circumstances, and reading through their files can be sad and frustrating. If we have a target at all, it is to have fewer calls and website accesses, because that would mean that fewer people are going through difficulties.

Somehow, though, I suspect the number of helpline calls will continue to rise. And whilst we’d like not to be needed, we’re here when we are.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)
1800 303145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

My Left Elbow

I’m a huge sceptic. I don’t believe in aromatherapy, reflexology or homeopathy. I find myself bewildered by the stupidity of people who make major life decisions based on their horoscopes, when I don’t even know my children’s star signs. I take all dietary advice with a pinch of salt, and I switch off Most Haunted because I don’t have the patience to watch gullible people working themselves into a state of panic in a dark room.

So, naturally, I was more than a little dubious when I researched LawCare’s information pack on stress and discovered the list of illnesses which can allegedly be caused by stress. Headaches I’ll accept, maybe even high blood pressure and heart disease, but paralysis and cancer – give me a break. And surely colds and flu are caused by viruses, not a hard day at work? And muscle strain is caused by, well, straining muscles.

But I have changed my mind about stress related illnesses, and my left elbow is the reason.

Fifteen years ago my sister experienced some stiffness and pain in her left elbow. Various medical investigations showed it to be a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer. She had a major operation and treatment, and is one of the lucky 5% to have survived that particular cancer. Eighteen months ago I started to experience similar pain and stiffness in my left elbow. Naturally I was concerned that my sister’s cancer had a genetic link, but my doctor seemed to think little of it and prescribed a gel to rub on, which made little difference.

For several weeks I worried about my increasingly painful elbow. Well, I did when I had time. I have a pretty busy life, and in between working, raising my young family, trying to keep on top of the housework, cooking and laundry, running a youth group and staying up late at night writing novels there wasn’t much time to feel sorry for myself. Then we flew to Florida for a much-needed family holiday, and only a week into the trip I realised that my elbow no longer hurt.

Discovering that my elbow pain was stress related has led me to accept that there could indeed be some strange and mysterious relationship between a whole variety of symptoms and our own feelings of being under pressure. And that’s partly why it’s so important that we address stress, manage and control it, and learn to deal with it before it does lead to something more unpleasant and permanent. And that’s why LawCare is here for lawyers.

But I’m still unconvinced about homeopathy et al.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)

18o0 303145 (Barriters in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Life Choices

As unbelievable as this sounds to me, my daughter leaves school next week. It seems only yesterday that I was waiting at the school gate to greet her after her first day in the nursery class. But she’s all grown up, and from next Friday she will be on study leave, returning to school only to take her GCSEs. She starts at sixth form college in September studying an eclectic variety of A Level subjects.

Naturally this means she has to start thinking about a career. I admit I’m relieved that she never even considered being a lawyer. I think working for LawCare has given me a somewhat jaded view of the legal profession. I am sure there must be lawyers out there who are happy and fulfilled in their work, but since they don’t call our free and confidential helplines, I do not meet them.

My daughter originally had her heart set on being an astrophysicist, until a teacher told her (incorrectly as it turns out) that to be accepted to read Astrophysics at any university, she would need to get all A* grades at GCSE. She was very unhappy to have to abandon her dream, but has quickly come up with an alternative career choice, which she is just as excited about.

Did you always dream of being a lawyer? As a seven-year-old, did nothing seem more glamorous than Group Litigation Orders or the Landlord and Tenant Act? I always wanted to be a writer. So when my careers adviser at school asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t say “I want to work as an administrator for a charity which helps lawyers with problems like stress and alcoholism.”

Career plans can change at any point, whether you’re a sixteen-year-old choosing A levels, or a disillusioned lawyer in a high street law firm. There are so many career options out there, and there is no shame in exploring and pursuing them. For help with lateral thinking, have a look at the Alternative Careers handout on our website for ideas as to 100 other things you can do with a legal qualification, other than practise law.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)

1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)
1800 303145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Office Environment

The LawCare admin office recently underwent an office move for the fifth time in our fourteen-year history.

Our first office was a small suite of rooms on the top floor of 3 Bank Place in Porthmadog, and seems such a long time ago now. From there we moved onto a lower floor of the same building for a year before leaving Porthmadog altogether.

I thought the latest move might be a stressful experience, and I would miss my old office space. In the event it took less than a day, and I’m quickly getting used to where everything is and enjoying the lighter, brighter and more structured environment.

I think it’s very important for everyone to have a place to work where they can feel comfortable, secure and in control. Studies have shown that an individual’s surroundings are very important to a sense of wellbeing. Workers need to know that they have all the equipment, information and materials needed to do their job, and where they can find it. They need to have a comfortable chair, not be too hot or cold, and regular breaks with access to refreshing drinks and snacks, as required.

It’s pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many lawyers struggle on without the books, supervision, secretarial support or even desk space they need. (I’ve written before about why I think “hot-desking” is a bad idea.) I’m aware that I’m very lucky to have such a comfortable office environment to enjoy, but if you’re forced to work in a draughty, ill-lit room, with faulty / inadequate equipment, LawCare is here to provide the support and encouragement you need to make the changes you need.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)
1800 303145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Finding Sanctuary

I love my office. It’s a space which is just mine. I have a photo of my family on a shelf above my desk, a very organised and personal “piling system”, and everything is where I put it and is just mine to use. It’s like my personal sanctuary, and working somewhere where I feel in control and comfortable is very important to me. I’m lucky that my work isn’t too stressful, but if it was, I can’t help but feel that a neat and ordered personal office space would go some way to offsetting that and making it easier to do my job.

Finding sanctuary outside the office environment can also be very beneficial. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at me, I really enjoy going to my local gym. It’s time on my own, pushing myself further each time, and I always reward my efforts with a few wonderful minutes in the spa afterwards. The steam room is where I do all my best thinking and resolve any issues troubling me. It’s another sanctuary.

My friend loves going to her church spiritual centre and commented the other day that her dream is to live there permanently and never leave. Many people of a religious bent find their own sanctuary in their church, meetinghouse or mosque, but it needn’t be a dedicated building and you needn’t be a spiritually minded person– your local park, or even your own bedroom, can serve as a place you can go to think quietly, or just breathe deeply and unwind after the stresses of a long day.

If work is wearing you down, try finding a place of sanctuary, in or out of the office.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the gym.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)
1800 303145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Leave Me Alone!

Those of us who work from home are frequently the recipients of envious looks and comments. When friends bemoan their workday lot (“signal failure on the Central Line this morning, utter chaos, I was an hour late for work”, or “I have to buy another suit, the dry cleaner couldn’t get the stain out”) the best I have to offer is “I tripped over the cat on the way to my study.” It’s easy to feel somewhat, well, jammy, as I go to work in my jammies.

We tend to compensate by making much of the downside of working from home. You have to be disciplined, make sure you knuckle down to work instead of doing your tax return. (The fact that the work has to be done is generally a good motivator in that regard. I know that by the end of today I need to have written a blog, checked and updated two PowerPoint presentations, designed and submitted an advertisement and written to a counsellor. Given that my working day ends in 2 hours, I think the tax return may have to wait until this evening.)

Then there’s the isolation. No office gossip, no water-cooler moments, no shared lunch breaks, no one to consult with, moan at or have meetings with. I sit alone, apart from the cat, for five hours a day, just getting on with my work in peace. Actually, I love it that way. When the children were off school recently, I got increasingly irritated when they “popped in” to ask for the Argos catalogue, or to let me know that they were going to a friend’s house, or just for a hug. Each time I turned back to my computer after the distraction I found I had lost my train of thought. I like to be left in peace to work, it seems. After twelve years of working from home alone, I don’t think I could concentrate in an office setting with all the banter and distractions.

So actually, working from home is great. But it’s not for everyone. Some people need work friendships, colleagues’ photographs to look through, stationery cupboard liaisons, and new hairstyles to compliment. Others prefer to be shut away in an office, distracted only by the phone and the occasional client meeting. We are all different, but one common factor is that we will all work much more productively and effectively in the environment in which we are most comfortable. For you, it may mean dressing up in a power-suit and commuting to a modern, open-plan glass office. In my case, it involves sitting alone in my study in my Primark pyjamas.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)

1800 202145 (Barristers in the Republic of Ireland)