Conversation with Dr. Frances Cheng, Specialist in Psychiatry, OT&P Healthcare MindworX

As a lawyer, have you ever experienced anxiety or moments of depression? You are not alone. Dr Frances Cheng, Head of Mental Health, Specialist in Psychiatry at OT&P Healthcare MindworX, shares her insights on mental health amongst lawyers in Hong Kong.

KF: Katherine Fan (Managing Director, Hughes-Castell)

Dr. Cheng: Dr. Frances Cheng (Specialist in Psychiatry, Head of Mental Health at OT&P Healthcare MindworX)

KF: Law practice is rarely as glamour as it is seen on television a lot of lawyers actually go through burnout, stress, mental anxiety throughout their career. Mental health has been a growing topic in the Hong Kong legal industry and we’re really fortunate today to invite Dr. Frances Cheng, Specialist in Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health at OT&P MindWorX to join us. 


Thank you so much for your time today.

Questions: What is mental health? How common is it among lawyers in Hong Kong?

Dr. Cheng: Mental illness is any condition that affects the way we think our emotions our mood and our behavior and how it impacts us in our daily functioning so whether it’s impacting us socially or at work or in our interpersonal relationships. 

KF: And how common is it amongst lawyers in Hong Kong?

Dr Cheng:  So we don’t have figures we don’t have local Hong Kong figures amongst the legal workforce however lots of studies have been conducted in the US in Australia and in the UK and a recent study in the US found that amongst about 13,000 lawyers interviewed 25% to about 30% of them did experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Now Hong Kong is a metropolitan city with the large international legal firms here so it’s expected that these figures are probably similar amongst the local legal workforce as well amongst the local population in Hong Kong the prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression is about 30% so we can see that stress and anxiety are definitely higher in those working in the legal profession here.

Question: What has contributed to mental illness?

Dr. Cheng: Well, we all know that the legal profession is extremely demanding and demanding in so many different ways so the competition I think between firms and sometimes even within firms is and can be extremely fierce. The working hours are often very long. Modern technology has definitely contributed.  With you know the advent of email a lot of people are CC on to so many emails that they’re just not able to get through all of these in one day and also right now there was more and more of a trend to use instant messaging so for example WhatsApp and WeChat amongst colleagues and also with clients as well so people in the legal profession really are struggling to keep up with all of these messages that they have to or they feel like they have to respond to instantly. This can lead to a huge amount of stress and strain on their time they’re not necessarily able to concentrate on the work that they’re trying to get through because they’re having to deal with all of these instant demands.

KF: And, it can be quite stressful when you’re always anticipating messages from clients or what’s messaging you.

Dr. Cheng: Yeah absolutely I think that is one thing which people do feel very uncomfortable with the fact that they know that something might come through any minute it could happen while they are on weekends definitely outside of office hours even when they’re travelling overseas on holidays they feel that pressure to constantly be responding instantly.

Questions: Can having a mental illness affect your physical well-being, your work performance, and your personal life?

Dr. Cheng: The WHO, the World Health Organization, stipulates that there is no health without mental health and indeed there are so many ways that we can become effective when our mental health deteriorates so for example physically a lot of people with anxiety and depression will complain of insomnia either not being able to fall asleep or having very fragmented sleep they will feel that during the day they just don’t have the same energy levels as they did before they may not feel as interested or as motivated in the work that they do or engage in with their colleagues or even that family and friends they omit they may also feel that their attention and concentration is for an indeed kind of reaction speed processing speed is worse.  It’s more difficult for them to be productive at work. All of these can be to an increased feeling of anxiety and stress and you know just not that they’re able to complete things when they expected that they would be able to.  So unsurprisingly personal life is often affected as well usually individuals are eager to sacrifice their personal time for themselves or with their family members. This can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt or feelings of loneliness that they’re not perhaps spending enough time with their children or their families or that they’re really disconnected from their friends because it was so caught up at work.  That must be really hard on family members of people who have mental health issues as well.  Yeah very often family members really want to help really want to see their family get better but because they’re so caught up in work they have very little time to spend with them anyway.

Question: What would be your recommendations on improving mental health at the social level, the organizational level, and the personal level?

Dr. Cheng: Well, let’s start with the personal level what I would recommend to everybody is that they definitely do prioritize and sleep. Lawyers are very good at not sleeping and actually most adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep in order for their brains to function well the next day now given that you know lawyers are usually a very short of time it’s important to try and maximize your productivity when you are at work by sleeping a sufficient number of hours this ensures that you are at maximum productivity and that you’re really able to pay attention and focus on the work that you are doing.

Diet is also important a lot of people will either not have breakfast or you know skip lunch during the day it’s actually really important to ensure that your brain has enough fuel to function properly and finally doing exercise so it’s well known that exercise will improve the brain functioning and if you’re able to get the exercise done early in the morning it means that you’ve activated your brain such that your cognitive function your brain functioning is better throughout the day.

Recent studies have also shown us that exercise is able to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals who are suffering from these conditions and therefore if you’re able to get in about 30 minutes of cardio a day that would be sufficient.

KF: Oh, great! What’s about for organizations it’s been a big topic at law firms and multinationals yeah what would you recommend organizations doing to help their employees if they’re stressed out or anxious.

Dr. Cheng: I mean for a long time organizations have been aware that the most valuable assets are their employees and so recently there has been a lot has been done to try and improve the mental wellness of their employees so lots of organizations are now starting to do talks and forums at work where people are encouraged to come and understand the symptoms of mental illness such that they’re able to seek help when they need to do so having such open talks also gives employees the confidence that yes their companies do realize that these are issues that are found within their organizations and that these are things which are should be positively dealt with and have the support of the company.

KF: And what about say friends in a social environment if what would you suggest to you know you’re lay person if they can observe they’ve seen that their friends are a little bit entity. 

Dr. Cheng: Yeah I would say that if you notice that there is a difference in your friends if you notice that they are perhaps a bit low in mood or a bit anxious or a bit irritable or that they have been declining all your social invitations then it’s time to let them know that you observe these changes in them and to really ask them you know if there okay how they’ve been doing recently and I think one of the really important things is that because anxiety and depression are common mental illnesses you will find that there are people around you who have suffered from these conditions and only by bringing it out and talking about it always you know start finally starting to strip away you know the guilt and the shame and the feelings of hopelessness that have kind of stigmatized all the types of mental illness for a very long time.

KF: Well thank you so much for sharing this with us Dr. Cheng it’s been very informative and it’s comfortable to know that it is an uncommon topic in Hong Kong so all the lawyers watching this today don’t be afraid to reach out if you do want to want to talk to someone about any stress or anxiety that you’re going through remember your career is a marathon not a race so do remember to take time to live healthily both physically and mentally because you’re going to need the good health that to get to where you want to be.

Full video interview: https://youtu.be/xS4eU4OaqYM

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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