Executive Partner and Head of the Family and Divorce practice Caroline McNally 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.

A Rise in Awareness

Working as a lawyer can be emotionally challenging. A recent survey undertaken by Lexis Nexis found that almost 66% of lawyers in the UK currently experience high levels of stress. More than 75% 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”.

It is now recognised that there should be a collective responsibility to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of employees, and the UK is making progress towards destigmatising mental health issues and offering guidance on how to support anyone who is living and working with a mental health condition.

Hong Kong’s Precarious Position

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 4 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% of respondents currently work with, or have worked with, someone with a mental health problem. 61% have experienced depression – a significantly higher number than the typical 1/7 of a population. This, coupled with the fact that Hong Kong only has 4.6 public-sector psychiatrists per 100,000 (roughly half the average ratio among other high-income countries), leaves the city in a precarious position.

Identifying Risk Factors

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.

Hong Kong has extremely high levels of “presenteeism”, or people coming into work when they are ill, which arguably is associated with increases in reported mental-health conditions. It is also likely to have a negative effect on an organisation’s productivity, given that ill employees are likely to work less effectively and take longer to recover. According to a survey conducted by Bupa Hong Kong, 90% of respondents were sick in the past year, with 68% still admitting they went to work. Unlike absenteeism, where it is clear when staff are not at work, the signs of presenteeism are often not as apparent. Virgin Pulse found that presenteeism can lead to 57.5 days (almost three months) in lost productivity, compared to 4 days lost on average to absenteeism.

According to the Mental Health Foundation New Zealand, businesses that fail to pay attention to mental health risk incurring substantial costs. Workplaces that prioritise mental health see better engagement, reduced absenteeism and higher productivity, while employees demonstrate improved wellbeing, greater morale and higher job satisfaction.

Supporting Yourself

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. The role of a family lawyer involves a balancing act between empathising with clients and giving them the best possible support, while at the same time maintaining a healthy perspective.

So, what makes a good family lawyer? Common perceptions are that they are empathetic yet detached and objective. Lawyers’ mindsets may need to be more flexible and reflective, and less analytical. If they want to help their clients, they should first help themselves.

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 is found below and 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’ll be taking a big step towards removing a harmful stigma.

 Well-being in the Central Family Court