As we have passed the first anniversary of life with COVID and lockdowns in the UK, this year’s mental health awareness week provides a much needed opportunity to reflect on our own mental health, and how we interact with others. One thing that I have encountered in all of this is the magnification of various positive traits: kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding, and willingness to cooperate, particularly from opponents. Colleagues are generally more willing to help out others with an apparently insuperable legal problem. The commodity of time is given more freely than before. There is no need to reflect on why this has happened. Everyone appreciates that, in one way or another, everyone else has had to overcome or manage their struggles at times. In turn, the impact of lockdown has acted as some form of accelerant to bring out the best in us, transforming wellbeing considerations from being something recorded in a pristine policy into something which is both tangible and accessible.
Have we employment lawyers, many of who are still working from home, managed to create that illusive (or is that just me) “work life balance”? Have we managed to retain our links with colleagues and clients? Have we got Zoom/Teams fatigue? Is there an alternative to the dreaded sentence “you’re on mute”?
As Head of the Employment Group at OSC, a full-time practitioner, part-time judge, full-time wife and mother, some-time mediator (not least between those who call me “Mum”), I am used to the sensation of endeavouring – and you get to choose your metaphor here – to keep lots of balls in the air as I juggle, or to keep all the plates spinning on those tall poles. And that is before we even get to me seeking to maintain any level of fitness, personal grooming (ok – I admit it, I do mean shoe shopping), or … wait for it … a social life. My father, a local politician, was fond of the saying “We cannot be all things to all people at all times”. He worked as a miner, so when he was at work, there was no multi- tasking and even if the iPhone had existed, he would not have been able to check it! Similarly, his council meetings were not on Zoom and there was no Jackie Weaver to disconnect any misbehaving members; he was in the room and in the moment.
But times have changed. Those of us sitting at our desks have to prioritise, and compartmentalise. Over the last year, trying to be teacher during the home schooling, friend and family member for those in need of support, a wit on Twitter, not to mention the lawyer sitting before our screens, has, I think, shown the difficulties of trying to keep all the plates spinning at the same time. Not being able to get out of the house and into our offices and chambers, or into a court /tribunal room has meant we have lacked the special differentiation which can help to bring into focus the need to concentrate on the task in hand. (Sorry – just back from a quick break to empty the washing machine which was bleeping at me to indicate the cycle had finished…. Where was I?… yes) Many of us are most productive if we can manage to concentrate on one thing, do it as well as we can, then move to the next.
There’s another point: we humans are (mostly) social creatures, thriving from the social interaction with people around us, the spontaneity of feeding off each other, and feeling the energy and social cues which isn’t just the same over a small(ish) thumbnail on a computer screen. Human contact – whether in a routine or a social setting – also makes a difference to our wellbeing.
Thinking about the juggling and competing priorities has led to me reflect on the various campaigns we now see as regular fixtures throughout the year. In March we marked International Women’s Day, in October we will mark Black History Month, in November we will get to the depressing date on which women effectively, on average, stop earning relative to men, by reference to the full time mean average gender pay gap. Additionally there is a “Pride Month” in June when the LGBT(QI?) community across the globe raise political awareness of current issues facing the community (though increasingly there is a tension between some “LGB” and some “T” people, which brings its own challenges), and occasions such as Holocaust Memorial Day remind us of the consequences of religious discrimination, and “Zero Discrimination Day” highlights disability discrimination which still plagues society. But the protection and prevention of discrimination against those with different protected characteristics is not something which can or should be picked up and put down. We always need to have, in the fore of our minds, issues of sex equality, race equality, the importance of equal pay, the evils of discrimination, harassment and victimisation. So do the annual events serve us well?
I think they do.
Our home lives are marked by annual events – for those with a religion, the festivals on their regular cycle. For those with children, the start and end of the school year. For those with a partner, anniversaries – and or all of us inevitably marking the passage of time, our birthdays. Yes we mark anniversaries with flowers and cards; but it is not the only time of year we show our partner that we love and appreciate them. Similarly, celebrating international women’s day does not mean that is the only time of the year we can and should think of the issues which are brought to the fore on that ‘special day’. Yes we need all equalities issues in mind throughout the year, but an annual occasion on which to pause and reflect does not detract from that; the trick for us all this mental health awareness week is to consider how to make it enhance it. How can we continue to co-operate with opponents to ensure the smooth running of hearings – either virtual ones, or when we return to in person ones? How can we continue to ensure our “open door” for colleagues when life becomes inevitably busier again? As the end of lockdown is in sight, for my part, I sincerely hope that the positive traits referred to at the beginning of this piece do not dim as we return to normal life, and that we remain conscious of how we interact with others. After all, these qualities contribute to maintaining positive wellbeing.
Piece written by Rebecca Tuck QC, Old Square Chambers.