At byrne·dean we have been working in the field of mental health in the workplace for seven years or so now. One of the primary motivations from the outset was to help people avoid the sort of mental health crisis I experienced back in 2011. One of the privileges of doing what we do is that people engage with us on a human level and share some of their humanity and vulnerability. It is therefore a particular joy when something like the message below lands in my inbox as it did from someone in a session last week (I have their permission to share it). It speaks for itself and seems a fitting way to sign off for our two week office shut down (returning on 16 August) which is our own wellbeing gift to each other.
Thank you for sharing your experience. As a former private practice lawyer, almost all of what you said resonated with me.
I spent 7 years at a couple of large UK law firms before moving to a top-tier US law firm for three and a half years. I thought that the step up to so-called ‘big law’ would put my anxieties around career progression and status to rest, but, of course, it only compounded them. My initial two years at the US firm were very positive – I was enthusiastic and willing to jump at every opportunity that came my way. Nothing was too much trouble – I was working close to 3,000 chargeable hours a year and proud of the fact. I had a great relationship with the partners I worked for and was frequently told that I was on ‘partnership track’ – ‘this is the hardest part of your career; just stick it out for a few more years and all will be good’ etc. etc.
Over time, it became clear that no matter what I did, it would never be enough. I began to lose confidence, my productivity dropped, I was still churning out the hours but was seemingly achieving less every day. I felt trapped, as though grafting was the only thing I had ever known and the only way I would make my way in the world. I went from being the most enthusiastic person that my family/friends knew, to the grumpiest and tetchiest. Almost every interaction I had, whether with a client/friend/family member, annoyed me. My wife had just given birth to our first child and I felt incapable of helping.
I have no doubt that, had I not tapped out at the time that I did, I would have had a breakdown (it might have been in six months / it might have been in six years, but it would have happened). Thankfully, after moving out of London with my family to stay with my folks for the first lockdown, they convinced me to talk to someone about how I was feeling. I had five sessions with a psychiatrist (I felt embarrassed taking this person’s time– why would I need a psychiatrist – I have nothing to complain about etc.). Across all of the five sessions, one very simple question resonated. He said tome, everything you have told me has been couched as “I should be doing xyz /others would expect me to do xyz / others would think I’m very fortunate to have the role/life I have so why I am complaining”. He then said, “Instead of thinking like that, go away and have a think about what it is that you want”.
Exactly as you said, I realised that I had never thought like that, and as soon as I did, I realised that what I wanted was not bags of cash (a key benefit of a US law-firm). Rather, it was to be enthusiastic again, to be interested, to be interesting, to have hobbies again, to be defined by something other than my career and most importantly, to be a good dad and husband.
I joined my current employer as an in-house counsel in September 2020 and since then my life (and my family’s life) has changed immeasurably. I work sustainable hours, in a great firm, with great people. I enjoy my job, my professional confidence is slowly returning. I have rebuilt relationships with old friends. I talk to my wife (can’t believe I even have to write that, but it’s true!). I drop my son off at nursery every day and put him to bed every evening. I genuinely feel like the luckiest person in the world to the point that I pinch myself daily as I can’t believe where I am relative to a year ago.
There are still traces of those old anxieties – as they rise up, I try to take a step back and recognise the feeling for what it is, calm myself down and remind myself of what really matters in life. I also still bite my nails to the quick. I want to stop, but I can’t and it certainly induces a lack of confidence, particularly in a professional setting (thankfully WFH with COVID has meant I haven’t had to confront this too much). I think the last roll of the dice with the nail biting is hypnosis, but any other helpful tips greatly appreciated (it’s chronic!).
With all that being said, I’m in a great place and it’s testament to the conversations that you are having with people and the confidence that you instil in people to enable them to confront their feelings and engage with others about them.