Mental health and wellbeing: lessons to be learned from the natural world

There has long been a recognised relationship between nature and wellbeing. Ancient cultures connected health and restoration with sacred springs and groves, while early modern herbal healers looked to the…

There has long been a recognised relationship between nature and wellbeing. Ancient cultures connected health and restoration with sacred springs and groves, while early modern herbal healers looked to the garden as a site of wellbeing. For many, nature over the past year (whether in parks and commons or in the countryside outside towns and cities) became places of rest and respite while we otherwise stayed at home. As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness week this year and the theme of ‘nature’, this article considers what learning family lawyers can take from the natural environment.

Lesson one: challenging times will not last forever

The natural environment shows us annually that difficult seasons are followed by less challenging seasons and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Each year, we observe audacious ripe summer disintegrate into frigid winter before resiliently budding to new life once again.  For family lawyers, there will be seasons in our careers when we feel that the burden of family law work more than at other junctures. This could be the result of volume of the work, the content of the cases or the clients that we are dealing with.

Amanda Bewley of Coram Chambers has written about the extreme challenge to our psychology of dealing with suicidal litigants and the importance of us all being equipped to deal with such issues. Through training, support, and industry we can develop the necessary resilience though to keep going through the difficult times and more than that, thrive better as a result of that learning. In the harder seasons, it can be worth remembering that there are four stages of learning:

  • unconscious incompetence;
  • conscious incompetence;
  • unconscious competence; and
  • conscious competence.

The second stage of learning will always be the hardest stage to work through but only by moving through it can you move to the next stage of learning. There was a Justice of the Court of Appeal who went on to become an even more senior member of the judiciary who lost their nerve for a time at the beginning of their time as an LJ. Having come from a different area of legal practice, they began hearing immigration appeals. After a short time, this LJ became paralysed by the fear of making a mistake and in refusing an appeal, condemning someone to death in the state to which they were sent or returned. This LJ was not ex-communicated or prevented from ever hearing immigration appeals again. Instead, this LJ was supported through this difficult season by the other Court of Appeal Justices and for a time, this LJ only sat as the 2nd winger when hearing immigration appeals. As a result, and after a short time, their confidence was restored, and they began doing lead judging again.

The truth is that we do not achieve anything without struggle. As Frederick Douglas said, we don’t get crops without ploughing the ground. What the story of the LJ demonstrates is that by working through difficult seasons, we can go on to achieve great things but perhaps with added understanding, maturity, and empathy (both for ourselves and for others). The story also teaches us how imperative it is to reach out for support from trusted friends, family, and colleagues in such times. No one in family law is too senior to be above requiring support to carry out our roles competently in challenging seasons. After a season of ploughing and perhaps with a little help from your friends, we can trust that the crops will come and that all will be well.

Lesson 2: the importance of letting go of the things that no longer serve you

Mental health and wellbeing require that we are able to let things go. As I wrote in my previous article on wellbeing, family lawyers need to be able to move through the stress cycle by releasing stress that our jobs inevitably cause us because of the importance of the matters we deal with to our clients: children; money; housing; liberty; security.

In addition to a daily practice of releasing stress and moving through the stress cycle, it is also vital to seasonally assess and release past perceived (or actual) failures and toxic ideas that no longer serve our careers. Each autumn, deciduous trees detox. The tree pumps toxins that it wants to release into its leaves which turn orange and gold and fall to the floor.

The importance of the process of continuously letting go is that it creates space in which new life and patterns can grow. As the low winter sun gently tends the hidden buds of life in the branches of the trees, so can these spaces create new opportunities for you. It is not only letting go of the bad stuff; it can also be the case that in holding too tightly to past success that we are prevented from moving forward. The process of letting go can be painful and like the trees shedding leaves, may feel exposing and possibly create some anxiety. It is important at these times to take time and to be kind to yourself. Perhaps a holiday or adventure or just quiet time away from work with an ‘out of office’ response on. When we go through processes of rejuvenation and rebirth in our working lives, the light that shines from those in a summer season can end up feeling shaming to us. We need to remember that too when we are in sunshine periods and partner with those around us who need our support at those times.

As we come out of lockdown, the process of letting go will look different for everyone. It could be that releasing your fears that you are not important enough for networking leads to a season in which you build a network of lawyers around you which will see you through any difficult seasons and work ahead. It could be that you take time to figure out your brand and then embrace new ways of marketing yourself brings you new energy and a wider reach for your work which will re-invigorate your practice and encourage your mental health and wellbeing moving forward.

Lesson three: to achieve real change we much embrace the possibility communally

Essential to our understanding nature is the sense of our place in a larger order and whole that supports, enables and encourages all life.

On 21 June 2021, if vaccinations and virus variants allow, social contact restrictions will lift to reveal a working world reborn. For family lawyers emerging from lockdown 3, this will produce a variety of responses. There will be those of us who are fizzing with excitement to return to leaving the house every day, donning heels and seeing long-lost colleagues again. There will be others of us who are anxious about returning to a lengthy daily commute (with the added pain of having to wear a mask throughout) and returning to a situation where they are no longer able to pick children up or drop them off to school.

In nature, there is no one size fits all. While some trees embrace annual change, as some birds embrace annual migrations, others do not. The difference in approaches does not elevate one above the other but diversity creates strength for the whole ecological system.

We are at a juncture where there is an extraordinary opportunity for some radical rethinking about working policies. Through embracing a hybrid model that embraces both how we have learned to work over the last twelve months and the importance of interpersonal collaboration and face to face contact for certain events and meetings. The crux of being able to embrace such a model (and retain the best people as a consequence) comes down to trust.

If there is one thing that we would hope could be taken from the past 14 months, it is that people can be trusted to work well when working from home. The Chairman of PwC, the professional services company, was quoted in the Times this week saying that an expected drop in productivity in staff working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic did not happen. This, he said, suggests that people with high integrity and who are committed to achieving their career goals will strive to do so wherever and however they are working.

The possibility of a hybrid system of working would allow lawyers who wish to predominantly be based at home to come in for certain key events or meetings and attend others remotely. This could allow the office to become a place for social activities and collaborative working and those who wish to, allow for independent working from home. The benefits to those with caring responsibilities may be enormous as daily fear of being late to collect children at the end of the day or being able to work while a child is sick at home is reduced or removed. It will also remove the need for colleagues of such people from having vicariously share in that daily anxiety or worry creating better workspaces for all.

A hybrid model has enormous potential for increasing diversity across the profession and to reduce the need to choose between professional and personal responsibilities. As stated above though, for it to really work it will require partnership between colleagues underpinned by trust on both sides.

Those working from home will have to be trusted to do just that, to come in when required to and to be manage the strains of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as part of their working life. Those leading teams will have to put in place ways of working which enable juniors still to learn from them, even if one of them is working remotely.

Those working in the office will have to be trusted not to exclude or marginalise those predominantly working from home to ensure that the careers of those working remotely are not jeopardised by that positive career choice. Those not working remotely may be required to ensure that non-essential meetings are either held entirely by remote means (even for those in the office) or in a hybrid way in a space where remote access is of a sufficiently high quality. Google, for example, are instituting a ‘campfire’ model for meetings where participants will be required to sit in a circle with spaces for those attending through screens. Policies such as this may reduce the possibility of those choosing to work from home becoming paranoid that by making a choice that works for their career that they may be left behind, increasing wellbeing.

In terms of team building, there are also creative ways and means of this continuing within a hybrid system. For example, many workplaces this year have embraced challenges, such as walking Land’s End to John O’Groats through daily step-counting, instead of team nights out drinking. Not only does this build community, but it is also inclusive, can be done from anywhere and at any time and can also lead to a more cohesive sense of identity for a firm or chambers through common purpose.

Mental health and wellbeing are not buzzwords. Mental health and wellbeing are vital to our profession and workplaces and the nature of the environments that exist around us. Good mental health and wellbeing require a balance to be achieved between knowing who we are as individuals (which includes having a life outside work), having a sense of purpose for our work and having strong professional relationships (horizontally with colleagues and vertically with mentors).

As family lawyers, we strive daily to ensure that the needs and best interests of our clients are satisfied in accordance with the law. There is an opportunity now to apply the same vigour to creating a profession and working culture within family law that is fit for purpose specifically because it embraces and embeds the foundations for diversity in its very working practices and policies. Nature teaches us that only by embracing diversity of needs, practices and structures can there exist an order that is healthy and well. This is a lesson that we all need to embrace as a profession right now.