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Life under lockdown and beyond: how lawyers can build resilience

29 April 2020 - By Marcus Martin

New Zealand’s lawyers have now been in lockdown for over a month, sent abruptly home as the global coronavirus pandemic swept south, mobilising entire nations to setup home offices from their kitchen desks, garden benches, sofas, and bedrooms. Such short notice meant lawyers were stripped of the traditional office support networks - coffee catch-ups in the kitchen, not to mention access to printers and dual monitors.

Accept the uncertainty

“Uncertainty can stress us out, making us wonder which path to take, what decision to make, or whether to respond at all,” says Steven Colligan, Associate of the College of Law New Zealand and Director of Emovare. He is a registered psychotherapist with over 15 years’ experience working in mental health and wellbeing, and specialises in executive and organisational development, human resources and coaching.

“Uncertainty can at times be immobilising. It is normal and okay to feel unsettled, and it is as equally important to find acceptance and commitment through these times,” Steven says.

As we live through the Great Pause, we build resilience.

“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, change, threats or significant sources of stress. These could be relationship or health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. Resilience means ’bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”

Know what nourishes — and drains — your energy 

COVID-19 and the lockdown measures are triggering stress on a scale unseen by anyone alive.

“Many individuals may well be experiencing family, financial, health and workplace stressors during this period. Therefore paying attention to what nourishes you and what drains you is vital,” says Steven.

While the traditional ways in which one builds resilience remain unchanged, our collective view of the world and how we respond to challenges has changed significantly.

“Evidence and research show that one of the primary factors in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family,” he says.

“Relationships that create trust, love, respect, and offer encouragement and reassurance will bolster a person's resilience.”

Bolstering resilience

In addition to a strong and nurturing support network, a range of other factors also help bolster resilience.

According to Steven Colligan, these include:

  • Accepting that change is part of life, and “bad” stuff happens,
  • Focusing on what you can control,
  • The ability to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out,
  • A realistic positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities,
  • Having a sense of gratitude,
  • Skills in communication and problem-solving,
  • The capacity to manage feelings and impulses,
  • Exercise and movement,
  • Healthy eating, reducing sugar and maintaining healthy sleep cycles.
Staying connected online and checking in

Social distancing does not also mean social isolation. However, Steven notes that many studies show social distancing can often lead to loneliness and isolation and does reflect a direct correlation with depression.

“Staying connected during the lockdown period is vital for good mental and psychological wellbeing. Having positive social support can improve our health and wellbeing and help us cope with stress,” he says.

“The traditional ways we connect have been dramatically changed so creating new ways, habits, and rituals around how we connect is crucial.”

Steven Colligan encourages law firms and lawyers to:

  • Communicate frequently, in a variety of ways, such as through email, calls, video/online chat,
  • Have a daily check-in and start with a social/personal check-ins. Don’t go straight to work tasks,
  • Keep daily routines,
  • Give direction and clarity where you can – be purposeful,
  • Focus on outcomes, not activity. Instead of focusing on activity or hours worked, focus on the outcomes and measure your team accordingly,
  • Maintain social events. Celebrate birthdays or other events that will connect people, such as a daily quiz, weekly virtual coffee, Zoom breakfasts,
  • Receive weekly updates from a senior staff member,
  • Send regular fun, inspirational or informative videos or memes/quotes,
  • Consider online training and upskilling for themselves and the team.
Act like you are in the office

As the lines between work and home blur, maintaining a mental distinction between office and home life is more important than ever.

“Get dressed, seated at your desk and ready to go at the start of your working day, with a clearly defined purpose,” says Steven.

“Create a defined workspace and structure your day. Working from home requires lawyers to become their own managers, particularly of their own productivity and energy.

“Plan and segment what you will do and when you will do it over the course of the day. Schedule regular breaks so that you are able to keep focused and avoid burnout. Get movement into your day - every 60 minutes, you should move, stretch, or stand for at least five minutes,” he says.

Once each workday is done, write your to-do list and goals for the next day so you have clarity and focus for what’s next, while also allowing you to disconnect.

“Find a way to create a mental/psychological segue from work to home that resonates with you. This may involve a ritual to separate work from home - change your clothes, have a shower, take 5-10 minutes to ‘arrive home’ by breathing, stretching or mindfulness, or keep a journal,” says Steven.

“Schedule in ‘off-time’ where you do not access emails, phones or technology. Establish evening rituals such as cooking, reading, stretching or breathing time, card games or board games, listening to music or podcasts.”

Finish the evening with consistent bedtime schedules and routines.

“Good sleep boosts your immune system, which is important.”

Dealing with anxious clients

Much of the strain on lawyers comes from clients experiencing the tough commercial realities of lockdown and the global economic situation.

“Many clients and businesses are experiencing high anxiety and stress during this time,” notes Steven.

“While we cannot eliminate the impact of these challenging times, there are ways we can assist. We can listen and be empathetic. Give your clients a chance to be heard. Take into account the way that their business and personal lives have changed.

“Share your own story and strategy; providing a sense of pragmatic direction and action can be very reassuring,” he says.

“Be honest and realistic about expectations. Share and suggest positive ideas and advice. Accommodate a variety of communication channels - emails, phone, or online conferencing.”

Limit pandemic time 

Too much information can be overwhelming.

Steven Colligan recommends limiting the time you spend immersed in information about the pandemic.

“Set aside a certain amount of time per day - say 10 minutes - and obtain your information from credible people and websites, such as reputable health and government sources. This time can be your research and worry time. Write down the relevant information, then put it aside until the next day.”

This helps you focus on what you can control, and spend less time, energy and anxiety on what you can’t control.

“Pick up your pen and write down all the things that are worrying you, then take a breath and write down the things you can control,” he says.

Engage in mindful breathing

Steven Colligan recommends mindful breathing as a simple way to rebalance your neurological and nervous systems.

“Try the following exercise three times a day. In the morning when you get up, in the middle of the day, and before you go to bed. You can also do it any time during the day when you start to feel anxious or stressed.”

Three by Three by Three Mindful Breathing

First round

Deep breath in for three, hold for three and release for three.

During this first round of breathing simply notice your breath in your body.

Second round

Deep breath in for three, hold for three and release for three.

During this second round, notice what you are feeling. Are you anxious, worried, tired, or peaceful? Notice this without judgement.

Third round

Deep breath in for three, hold for three and release for three.

During this third round focus and ask yourself, “What is the most important thing for me to focus on right now?”

Working from home is here to stay

COVID-19 has irrevocably changed our lives. As epidemiologists around the world race to find a vaccine, the reality is the fastest a vaccine has ever previously been developed is four years. This means our changed way of working is here to stay. Together, we can adapt to this new reality, and work to deliver quality legal services to clients who may need our help more than ever.

Marcus Martin is the CEO of the College of Law.

Last updated on the 29th April 2020