For Men’s Health Week, LOD’s Aaron Mentha spoke with Scott Cromb, a barrister and father from Victoria in Australia about men’s health in the “pressure cooker” environment of the legal practice.
Aaron and Scott chat about the wellbeing of men in the profession, the importance of being more open and vulnerable, and not feeling a stigma when it comes to asking for help. At the bottom of the article are some links for useful resources and further reading.
Aaron: Thank you so much for making yourself available to join us and have a chat about men's wellbeing during Men's Health Week, Scott. The connotation for many with respect to the topic of men's health is that it refers to mental health – and that’s probably true in many respects – but of course, it’s not the only issue. There are others with respect to physical well-being that include: eating right, exercising, and so on. It’s also possible that the mental and physical factors are linked in some way shape or form.
The status of men's health is generally poorer than females in most countries, including Australia. Young men have more accidents at work, they are 4 times more likely to take their own lives than women and suffer from more lifestyle-related health conditions than females at the same age, they go to the doctor a lot less. Having a stressful job like being a lawyer – which you and I both are currently – compounds these risk factors, many of which are preventable.
Scott, you're a lawyer and you've joined the bar relatively recently. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about yourself personally and professionally, along with what you've been up to lately?
Scott: I grew up in country Victoria and had a really great childhood. Country Victoria; it's sort of cricket, it's football, it's billycarts, it's bikes. It was just a really nice way to start life off and I think that's something I'm trying to carry into my boys’ lives. We can talk about that as well but I just had a childhood of enjoying the world rather than enjoying what's on the screen. I got off to a great start that way. I moved down to the coast to go to uni and met my lovely wife and we're now living out in the Dandenongs. So life for me, on a personal level, is just really all about fatherhood, being a husband and playing musical instruments very badly. That's the ‘home me’.
As for the ‘professional me’, I joined the bar about a year ago and before that, I worked as a solicitor for just under a decade. The first three years were spent in a banking and finance/insolvency litigation type of role and then the next three or so were working in-house at a charity. The last three or so years were back in private practice before making the move to the bar.
At the bar, it's a bit of a mixed bag. You get to do a lot of a lot of everything in the commercial realm. For me, it's a world of last-minute briefs as well as some more meaty ongoing matters and you could find yourself off in the far-flung corners of Victoria. Portland was my most exotic experience to date, in a little courtroom there with a sheep dispute, which meant I learnt a lot about sheep!! If anyone out there needs a sheep lawyer I'm your man. That's the ‘professional me’ in a nutshell.
Aaron: I'm sure it’s both rewarding and challenging when it comes to getting up to speed with matters, doing a great job for your clients and balancing all of that with your commitments to your family and wanting to spend quality time with them. When we mention terms like ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’, what do they really mean for you, within the context of everything you've got going on with your life at the moment? Why are they important to you?
Scott: That's a great question. I think that for me it’s really about balance. Stress is going to be everywhere in the world of litigation, you simply cannot escape it. You're in a stressful environment – it's a pressure cooker more often than not. You've got people's livelihoods on the line and it's your job to get them the best result you possibly can. So you're always carrying a lot on your shoulders while at the same time being embroiled in battle. Your opponents are always out to capitalise on the weaknesses in your case. You can never think of every possible argument, so you often have nagging thoughts about work that pop into your mind at 2 a.m.
It can be viewed as an inherently disruptive profession when you're trying to have a happy balanced life and you don’t want to be terrible to live with or to have a terrible diet and all those sorts of things. I think it's the elusive striving to find that holy grail of balance where you have work that is intellectually stimulating but that doesn’t come at the cost of all the other facets of your life. I’m constantly striving to find ‘work-life-balance’ but recognise that, of course, ‘work’ is very much a part of my ‘life’ and that’s okay.
Exercise is a large part of balancing the equation for me. I try to get to the gym or out for a run at lunchtime. To an extent, it's easier to do that at the bar because you're your own boss, whereas in private practice you've got to take set breaks and there's potentially a pressure work through them in order to get things done. I've found that when I can be disciplined enough get out for even a token 20 minute run around the block or gym session, no matter how busy I am, it not only sets me up well for the rest of the day but my stress and cortisol levels are so much lower, and therefore manageable.
Aaron: When it comes to striving for balance between your ‘work life’ and ‘personal’ or ‘home life’, have you ever experienced periods where that balance has become skewed and translated into a rough patch?
Scott: Absolutely. More often than I'd like to admit. I think I've been fortunate enough to work in some great firms where I have been able to maintain balance and haven’t had the horror story experience of having to work every night just to be seen to be working every night, but there definitely have been times where I haven’t enjoyed my job. It seems glib but “Mondayitis”… it's a real thing. I used to find that my happiness levels were peaking around the sort of Thursday, Friday, Saturday mark, but that by Sunday I'd be feeling quite down. It took me a while to register that it was because I wasn’t looking forward to going back to work on Monday. The fact that my happiness levels were really dependent on the day of the week was a pretty clear indicator that something was wrong.
I'm happy to say I don't get that anymore, and that's a lot to do with the fact that I’m now doing a job that I love. But it certainly hasn't always been that way.
I think lawyers are a particularly “at-risk” section of the community, and add to that, men in law who've got their own difficulties in asking for help, whether that’s down to pride or whatever it is, it stops us from talking about how we feel and bottling up. Add that to working in the pressure cooker environment of practice, it really can be a recipe for disaster for some men if our wellbeing isn’t managed.
There are some great initiatives out there, but when it comes to looking after your wellbeing I think that a lot of it ultimately it comes down to the individual. If I’m in a pit and I can’t pull myself out of it, then there's nothing stopping me from falling into one again if the circumstances around me aren't helping me. I guess we have to do whatever we can to help ourselves and take up the offers of those around us to help. My wife is an amazing support for me. You also need to remember that you can say “no” to work. You can put the computer away, go for a walk, go grab a coffee, and look after the important things in life.
Aaron: A lot of Australian men have grown up feeling like they've got a defined role to play. When they come home to their family they need to try and set a confident, positive, optimistic mood and shoulder the burden of their own concerns silently. That’s probably an unhealthy thing, because over time, not speaking up can cause those concerns to fester and hurt your wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the people around you. What do you say in response to that, and about the importance of speaking about your feelings? What sort of lessons do you teach your young sons?
Scott: Very good question. I think that, in relation to speaking up… it's hard for us guys to be vulnerable and to shatter the illusion we like to think we’re portraying, which is that “we've got this”, when (of course) “we don't got this”. We need the people around us – they are there for a reason.
Knowing that it's safe to say “I'm struggling here, can you help me?” does something magical. It breaks the power of the problem in your mind, because a problem in your mind can fester and it can take on a life of its own, and most of the time it's blown out of proportion. There’s been a number of times when I’ve told a mate over a beer that I’m struggling with a problem, and that does wonders because nine times out of ten your mates will tell you that they’ve experienced the same sort of thing.
In terms of the lessons I teach my boys…we've tried to keep up a regular dialogue. They’re aged 7 and 4, so we're at the stage where it's easy because they want to be around you. I've got no doubt that as teenagers it'll be a different picture. So while we've got this perfect window of opportunity of access into their little minds, we want to really instil in them that “you can talk to Mum and Dad… you can tell us anything”.
One of the ways we've gone about this is to have a routine of weekly pancakes on Saturday mornings. We let the boys have any toppings they like, and when we eat them we always ask each other (Mum and Dad included!) the same questions:
“What's making you happy at the moment?”
“What's making you anxious at the moment?”
The last question is such a good one. I can talk about a matter that I might have on at work, and then for my eldest, it might be something coming out about school which he wouldn't have otherwise felt the need to tell us about. Once we've broken the ice with the easy questions, it's not difficult to then go that little bit deeper and it's revealed some real gold over the years.
So, everyone looks forward to pancake time because they have a sweet tooth and because it's a safe place. We hope that, while they’re still young and happy to be around us, instilling in them that we're there for them will carry them forward into the future with a knowledge that whenever things are tough, they can talk to us or each other and the people around them.
Aaron: That sounds fantastic. Scott, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and for giving us some insight into your thoughts on men’s health and wellbeing in the legal profession.
Scott: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.
Men Health Week (Australia)
Men’s Health Week (NZ)
Men’s Health Week (UK)
Beyond Blue (Australia)