Looking after No. 1 - and No. 2

Justice Anna Katzmann 25 November 2011

Lunchtime Talk to McCabe Terrill Lawyers

Justice Anna Katzmann 25 November 2011

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The Red Hot Chilli Peppers sing:

Make time for love and your happiness.
The mothers of invention are the best.
We all know and struggle with some loneliness.
A tender mess for everyone I guess. I guess.

The song is "Happiness Loves Company".

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you. Thank you for taking an interest in this very important subject. Thank you, too, for giving up part of your lunch hour to listen to me. I was asked to speak about mental wellbeing and work/life balance. I started with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers because it seemed to me that that one verse captures a good deal of what I wanted to say. I have entitled these remarks – "Looking after No. 1 – and No. 2".

I know that Dr Robert Fisher has spoken to you and some of what I say will cut across his remarks. For that I apologise. But the points bear repeating.

In her Tristan Jepson Memorial lecture in 2006 the Canadian psychiatrist Associate Professor Dr Mamta Gautam declared that most lawyers have three times the risk of depression than the general population. 15% of lawyers, she said, meet the criteria for alcoholism. She said there is a disproportionate number of lawyers taking their own lives. One study she mentioned showed that 11% of lawyers contemplate suicide on a monthly basis. When I was president of the Bar Association four barristers committed suicide over a twelve month period.

Every survey of lawyers in this country has revealed a disproportionately high incidence of depression. In the annual Australian surveys of the professions by Beaton Consulting law has repeatedly scored worse of all the professions for depression. In 2007 nearly 16% of the lawyers who participated had moderate or severe symptoms and nearly a third self-medicated with alcohol or other drugs. Another survey conducted by the Australian Financial Review disclosed that 45% of young lawyers were thinking about quitting their jobs in two years and one in 100 said they intended to leave the law altogether. The survey conducted by the Brain and Mind Institute in 2008 showed alarming figures for law students.

The legal profession has been slow to come to terms with these bleak statistics. For a very long time we buried our heads in the sand in a misguided and futile attempt to protect our image of invulnerability and self-control. In the process I believe we exacerbated the problem. Like most physical illnesses early detection and treatment leads to better outcomes. Like all physical illnesses prevention is better than cure. Slowly but surely the message appears to be resonating. Information is plentiful. I encourage you to go to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation website and follow the links. I also commend the recent imitative of Young Lawyers, whose mental health website I launched earlier this month, and their excellent handbook On the question of prevention I can do little better than to turn to two pieces of sage advice. One comes from the Black Dog Institute (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/17-stresshintstoavoidharmfulstress.pdf). The second from the Young Lawyers website.

The Black Dog Institute lists 12 hints for avoiding harmful stress. If you click on the following link above you can read more about them.

These are they:

1. Work out priorities

2. Identify your stress situations

3. Learn to 'reframe' statements: Don't react to imagined insults

4. Think before you commit yourself to other people's expectations

5. Move on: Don't dwell on past mistakes

6. Learn to defuse anger and frustrations rather than bottle them up

7. Set aside time each day for recreation and exercise

8. Take your time: Don't let people rush you

9. Take your time on the road: Don't be an aggressive car driver

10. Help children and young people to cope with stress

11. Think positively – you get what you expect

12. Cut down on drinking, smoking, sedatives and stimulants

The Young Lawyers tips are as follows:

  • Get 7+ hours sleep. Simple but effective
  • Make time for yourself as well as your family and friends. Like anything in life, if you don't work at something you will lose it. You need to make the time, not wait for time to become available
  • Consider what makes you happy and make an appointment to do this every day
  • Schedule exercise as part of your routine. Regular physical activity significantly reduces the risk of people developing depression
  • When you're frantic and can't leave the office, take 2 minutes to stretch out your neck, back and shoulders at least twice a day
  • Limit alcohol. Find alternative, positive ways to wind down after a long day in the office
  • Limit caffeine. Drink 8 glasses of water a day and eat breakfast each day
  • Capacity is an arbitrary term, understand what the definition means for you. Learn to say no to the one too many briefs
  • Play to your strengths ….Other than the law, there are things that interest and motivate us. For example:
    • helping others – get involved in the pro-bono work
    • public speaking – volunteer to help with graduate recruitment
    • business strategy – offer to help your Partner with marketing plans
    These suggestions can add to your workload but they are things that give you pleasure and energy and can be a good balance to the mundane but inevitable tasks assigned to young lawyers.
  • Be less self-critical – be realistic in assessing situations if a Partner appears not to be listening to your ideas – they are probably busy and absorbed in something else – assess the situations in context.

If you don't attend to your mental well being, how can you properly attend to other people's problems?

Just as important as looking after yourself, however, is looking out for others. We can all modify our own behaviour to reduce the stress we cause others. That is particularly important when we occupy supervisory positions. It sounds trite, but a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

If you are in such a position, look at your work practices. Ensure you are not contributing to an unhappy staff. Encourage staff to let you know if you are being too demanding. Promote an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable about doing so. Make them feel that if they tell you they are under stress or if they feel they cannot cope, they need not feel their job is in jeopardy. Let them know that you can help them by adjusting their workload and by pointing them in the right directions. Better still, know the signs and make the changes. Be proactive.

Make them realise that they are not alone and that what they are going through is neither unusual nor intractable. Encourage them to seek assistance. Tell them where they can go to get it. Better still offer to help them arrange it and see to it that they do. Recognise that none of us is invulnerable to the stresses and strains of overwork and demanding individuals. If you misjudge the situation, admit your error and learn from your mistakes.

Read the Mental Health First Aid Manual. Better still do a course.

Think about ways of making the workplace less conducive to stress. Ask your employees about their exercise regime. I can't overemphasise the importance of exercise, although I have to admit to not getting as much as I would like myself. There is nothing like sweating out or punching through your stress in the gym. The endorphins exercise produces make a real difference. Exercise improves productivity. Tell new employees that they are expected to program exercise into their schedule. Do regular surveys of the staff. Ask them what you can do better. I guarantee the effort will be worth it.

In 2007 Geoff Gallop, the former premier of Western Australia, now Director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney, spoke at the Bar Association. You will remember that he resigned from parliament in January 2006 in order to recover from depression. After he spoke to the Bar I received an email from a barrister who made some observations about the bar that are equally applicable to solicitors. I want to share them with you:

"it is very important for the Bar to foster understanding of mental illness in its members. Too often, discrimination occurs through ignorance or people are unfairly pigeon-holed because of negative impressions created by a condition over which a person has little control. When one considers the stresses we are under, it is hardly surprising that so many 'go under' so to speak. Too many favour the 'get over it' approach to mental illness or, worse still, the 'sweep it under the carpet' marginalisation approach'."

Since his resignation from parliament Gallop has often spoken publicly about his personal battle with depression. His decision, like the decisions made by other brave individuals, has raised public awareness and helped to diminish, if not remove, the stigma that has been associated with mental illness. It also eloquently illustrates the point I repeatedly made to the bar that acknowledging that you have a mental illness is a sign of strength, not an admission of weakness, for it demonstrates a tremendous strength of character. 

Now let me finish with a story. About 13 years ago, I was sitting at the bar table when a colleague turned to me and said: "you look dreadful. I am taking you to lunch." I took up that invitation. I don't believe I was depressed, but I was extremely stressed, probably anxious. That lifeline was all I needed to get a grip on myself. Oddly enough I had not long before returned from an overseas holiday but I felt the weight of a particularly tricky case and doubtless the mounting workload. That single act of kindness shook me into taking stock of my life. I realised that I was working too hard and ignoring everything else. I enrolled in a gym. I got fitter and happier. I arranged to see close friends every Friday night. I took out subscription tickets to the opera, the STC and the ACO. And I have not looked back. I found that I was not only happier, I had something more to talk about than my latest case. How boring was that?

Now what happened to me can happen to anyone and has probably happened to you. The message I hope you will take away is that it is important to recognise the signs, not only in ourselves, but also in our colleagues. Don't ignore what is happening around you.

Above all, don't lose your perspective. Work out what kind of a life you want to lead. The practice of law offers tremendous rewards, and not just financial ones. It need not be a burden. Nor should it be overwhelming. Make the right room for family and friends and for other pleasures. Just remember, no-one ever died wondering what was in the latest edition of the CLRs?