Mental Health Resources for Hong Kong Lawyers

Practicing law anywhere in the world is stressful, but practicing law in Hong Kong is uniquely stressful. The working culture in Hong Kong is hard-driving, and the sums of money at stake, for clients and their lawyers, can be immense. Space is at a premium, which can make working at the office or from home challenging. And over the last two years, strict quarantine measures have made it difficult for people in Hong Kong to connect with friends and family overseas, or simply to experience a change of scenery and to unwind.

Dickie Mok is an in-house lawyer at a financial institution in Hong Kong and a counsellor. He notes that, because Hong Kong’s economy is so outward-focussed, it requires lawyers in Hong Kong to work extra-long hours in order to coordinate with lawyers in other time zones. It’s an issue for lawyers in all major financial centres, but a “heightened issue” in Hong Kong, according to Mok.

Mok acknowledges that Hong Kong’s local culture has a reputation for not prioritizing mental health, and the prevailing attitude has been to “gut it out” when under stress. He does note, however, that public conversations around mental health have improved significantly in Hong Kong in recent years, including for lawyers. The aim of this article is to discuss some of the stressors faced by lawyers and to provide an overview of some mental health resources that are available to them in Hong Kong.

In a series of practice notes published on Practical Law, Bridget Clapham, an executive coach based in the UK, has written extensively on stress, performance and well-being for lawyers. Stress, she says, triggers the release of hormones related to the instinctual fight or flight response. Some level of stress, or pressure, according to Clapham, is good for performance, as it causes people to stretch their abilities. However, a stretch pushed too far can turn into a strain, and eventually into a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Clapham cites the following example sources of stress that lawyers may face:

  • Heavy workload.
  • Client expectations.
  • Patterns of work.
  • Keeping up-to-date with changes in legislation.
  • Changes within the organisation that impact on their role.
  • Changing roles or being promoted with increased responsibility.
  • Lack of support.
  • Being part of a dysfunctional team.
  • A lack of clarity in relation to expectations and their role.
  • Long hours.
  • Bullying and harassment at work.
  • Moving in-house from private practice (or vice-versa).
  • Poor communication on a day-to-day or project basis.
  • Liaising with external teams or stakeholders.
  • Expectations of broad areas of knowledge within a small in-house team.
  • Helping commercial or other business colleagues to understand legal issues.

Chronic activation of stress responses often manifests in certain emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioural changes, writes Clapham:

Emotional changes

Physical changes

Cognitive changes

Behavioural changes

Feeling anxious

Headaches

Memory problems

Altered sleep patterns

Feeling frustrated

Muscle tension (particularly around the neck and shoulders)

Difficulty concentrating

Changes in eating habits

Feeling demotivated

High blood pressure

Negative thought patterns

Becoming less sociable

Feeling angry

Palpitations

Inability to prioritise

Loss of sense of humour

Feeling useless

Indigestion

Difficulty making decisions

Procrastination

Feeling isolated

Loss of appetite

Paranoia

Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Mood swings

Irritable bowel syndrome

Catastrophising

Short tempered

Reduced confidence

Prone to infection

Inability to think straight

Dishevelled physical appearance

 

In an article on Practical Law, Richard Martin, Director of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Byrne Dean, a UK workplace behavior consulting company, and a former lawyer, candidly discusses his own mental health breakdown that caused him to transition his career towards workplace mental health and become an advocate of the Mindful Business Charter.

I said earlier that one of the sources of stress for lawyers is our makeup, or who we are. I have always been a good boy who worked hard, did well in school and at university, and was a high performer at my firm. By the time I was 30 years old, I had two kids and a third on the way. I was a partner at a London law firm that merged with Jones Day, making me a partner at one of the largest law firms in the world. Approximately three years after that I went to another London firm to get involved in firm management. In May 2011, I was 40 years old with three kids and I was saying “yes” to a lot of things—both at work and in my community. I was also being groomed to be the firm’s next managing partner.

During this time, looking from the outside, I had a grand edifice of a life. But I never took time to look after myself, and that caused my foundations to crack. I knew that I was very stressed, but I kept focusing on getting through the next week or the next month. A coach I was working with started to challenge my motivations for doing things. He noticed that something was off. And then one day as I was driving along the motorway, I had a massive panic attack. I did not know that it was a panic attack at the time. I just felt very sick and knew that I had to get away from where I was. My panic compelled me to get out of my car and start walking down the motorway in the middle of traffic. Eventually an ambulance came and took me to the hospital.

After being released from the hospital, I spent the next few weeks trying to work from home, but it became increasingly difficult. I went from never being afraid of anything to being terrified of the doorbell or the sound of the phone ringing. I was also exhausted. Finally, my psychiatrist told me to just stop! And so I did. I spent the next month in the hospital, followed by two years in recovery, and I never went back to my law firm.

Recognizing that many of the stressors faced by legal and other professionals have origins in modern business practices, individuals from Barclays, Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons created the Mindful Business Charter in the UK in 2018. The Mindful Business Charter is based on four pillars which provide a framework for more mentally healthy ways of working: openness and respect, smart meetings and emails, respecting rest periods and mindful delegation. There are now over 90 signatories to the Mindful Business Charter (including Thomson Reuters) and it has been adopted by some firms in Hong Kong. It is a good place to start if you, your colleagues and clients would like to learn about how lawyers can adopt more mentally healthy ways of working.

If a lawyer in Hong Kong feels something is wrong and wishes to have a conversation with a mental health professional, there are organizations and resources available to help. Many law firms, Mok says, have employee assistance programs that offer access to resources, including in some cases, professional counsellors, via a confidential telephone hotline. For those looking to have an in-person conversation, there are also numerous counselling clinics in Hong Kong that can be found by searching online.

For those looking for a repository of information on mental health in Hong Kong, including resources to help learn more about mental health generally and lists of local professionals who work in the field, Mok recommends checking out the website of Mind Hong Kong, a charity dedicated to improving awareness and understanding of mental health in Hong Kong.

In terms of daily practices that encourage mental health and wellness, there are a few practices that Mok recommends:

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  1. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness of one’s thought patterns and behaviors. Meditation provides a way to practice mindfulness. Mok recommends the apps Headspace, Waking Up and Calm for those new to meditation.
  2. Keep a gratitude list. Gratitude increases mindfulness and acts as a counter-balance to pessimism. The app 5 Minute Journal prompts users to make gratitude entries regularly. It takes just a few minutes on your commute and the routine “builds a muscle for gratitude”, according to Mok.
  3. Do breathing exercises. These are important tools for dealing with stressful situations. The 4-7-8 breathing technique helps to counter fight-or-flight responses and puts the brain in a restful mode, according to Mok. The technique involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds.
  4. Live a healthy lifestyle. Exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine.

Overall, Mok says the most important step is usually the first one. In his experience, the lawyers who have sought help started with a vague sense that something was not right. It was only after speaking to someone that they gained the necessary perspective to see the full scope of their situation. Armed with knowledge, and support, they were able to take the steps necessary to improve their lives. 


Helpful Resources:

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Practical Law Hong Kong Lead, Thomson Reuters

Bryan is Practical Law Hong Kong Lead at Thomson Reuters, where he is responsible for Practical Law’s Hong Kong content. He has worked as an in-house lawyer and in private practice. Bryan is a qualified lawyer in Hong Kong, New York and British Columbia.