Humans are often referred to as ‘the social animal’. We have evolved to function best in groups, relying on each other for protection, to forage effectively, and to reproduce. There is another benefit we gain from cohabitation, however, one far less rational but just as crucial, and that is social connection.
Scientist Matthew Lieberman poses in his book ‘Social’, that the human need to connect is as fundamental to us as food and water. Think of the saying ‘they broke my heart.’ Although we’ve always referred to the pain of losing someone as an analogy to physical pain, there may be more truth to that statement than metaphor. Pain caused by social interaction is valid and manifests in us, mentally and physically. Without a sense of belonging, connection, and community we are not well. Understanding this allows us to nurture the relationships in our lives for our own mental wellbeing, and for others.
Lawyers experience disproportionately high levels of psychological distress and depression compared to members of the general population, due to a multitude of reasons, such as the high-stress and responsibility for others that comes with practicing law.
“Just ask, just listen” is a phrase that Grant Pritchard, President of the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand, uses when discussing mental health conversations and how we can better support those around us. He stresses that by reaching out and letting others know they are not alone can make a world of difference, even if you don’t feel like you have the right answers.
In a legal environment, “just ask, just listen” looks like checking in on your workmates. It can be easy to focus solely on work-related issues when checking in on a colleague, but it’s important to recognize that our lives incorporate both our work and personal worlds. Our work world can impact our home world, and vice versa. Gone are the days when we can just tell our people to “leave your personal life at the door”. Many effective workplace wellbeing programs are starting to recognize this by taking a more holistic approach to supporting staff wellbeing.
Checking in on your fellow lawyers and workmates is vital. If you know your colleague has a particularly full plate, or they have something going on at home that may be causing distress, just regularly checking in and asking “how are you feeling?”, “how are things going at home” or “can I help with anything?” gives them permission to share how they’re doing or ask for some help. It could make the world of difference to them.
So, how can we be better listeners and more effectively check in on each other? Checking in might be a bit nerve-wracking to start with, but it will get easier as you practice and build confidence:
- Prepare and pick the moment. Make sure you’re in a good headspace, ready to genuinely listen and able to give as much time as needed. Choose somewhere they might find private and comfortable for a chat, and figure out what might be a good time for them to talk.
- Know your role. If you’re checking in on a workmate, your job is to listen, care, and signpost them towards appropriate support. When you check in on a workmate, they might tell you that they’re not doing OK. Your role is never to diagnose, be judgmental, fix them or give a long list of ‘dos and don’ts’. Your role is to listen, encourage and signpost them to the right support if required. Remember: you’re not the support - you’re the bridge to support.
- Ask how they’re doing. Be relaxed, friendly and caring. Help them open up by asking questions like “how are you feeling?” or “what’s life been like for you?”. If there’s something specific that has changed that you’re worried about, you could mention this to them, like “You don’t seem like your usual bubbly self at the moment. How are you going?”
- Be OK with rejection. When you check in with someone, they might not be ready to talk, or might not want to talk to you. If they don’t want to talk, that’s OK. Just let them know you care about them and that you’re here for them if they ever want to talk. You could ask if there’s someone else they’d rather talk to.
- Listen, listen, listen. If they want to share how they’re doing, listen actively and with an open mind. Take what they say seriously. Try to avoid interrupting, judging or rushing the conversation. You can acknowledge that it sounds like things have been tough for them. Don’t worry if there are moments of silence. Being there with them and listening is the most important thing. Ask open questions so you can better understand how they’re doing. For example, “How are you feeling about that?” or “How long have you felt this way?”
- Encourage positive action. You could ask what they’ve done previously to get through situations like that, how they’d like you to support them, or if there’s something they could do for themselves right now. If they’re in a situation that might need specific support (for example, if they’ve been feeling really down for more than two weeks) encourage them to see a health professional or support service. You could offer to help them get connected with someone who might be able to help them work through their situation.
- Check back in. Put a reminder in your diary to call them in a couple of weeks. If they're really struggling, follow up sooner. Ask how they’ve been going since you last talked. Ask if they've found a way to manage their situation (and don’t judge if they haven’t). Stay in touch, encourage and be there for them. Genuine care and concern can make a real difference.
Our ability to connect has been stretched by the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns restricting our physical connections often to a single household. Our normal human behavior has had to change, so as our physical connections have been limited our ability and desire to connect digitally has flourished. Platforms such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams are providing a platform to enable not just productivity, but a workplace community and a forum for caring and kindness.
Sending somebody a quick “how are you doing today?” message has never been easier. Although digital connections can’t completely replace the physical, they can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation – maintaining a sense of community around us at work and home. For our colleagues still working from home as their countries fight the COVID-19 virus, staying socially connected is a fundamental support for their mental wellbeing.
We all have a role to play in creating communities and workplaces that foster a better mental health culture. By simply listening, caring and checking on the people around us at work and home, you are already being part of the solution.