All signs point to law. With triggers such as stress, boredom, and lack of control, mental health issues are rife among lawyers. What can law firms do to counteract the problem?
In recent years there has been a growing conversation between the corporate and community sectors regarding the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace. This is particularly relevant for the legal profession, as research from 2015 found that lawyers working in law firms have the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing of all professions.
US psychologist and author Martin Seligman identifies three key reasons why law is the “unhappiest” profession: pessimists do better at law, many lawyers work under high pressure on monotonous work accompanied by low levels of control, and the law is becoming increasingly business-focused.
Seligman goes on to cite evidence which shows that a high percentage of severely depressed people have perfectionist personality traits, including setting high expectations, being goal directed and working very hard – qualities that abound in successful lawyers. Whether or not there is a direct link between these traits and mental health concerns, there is now a compelling case for law firms to address the issue of mental wellbeing in a sustained way.
Tackling an industry-wide crisis
Despite increased industry-wide attention on this subject, turning awareness into mainstream action and giving it context continues to be a challenge – particularly given some of the structural and cultural barriers that can be unique to law firms. In response to these challenges, a number of the nation’s leading law firms joined forces with the College of Law in 2011 to create the Resilience@Law initiative.
This collaboration set out to take a leadership role in raising awareness and understanding of the nature and impact of stress, depression and anxiety across the legal profession. It is focused on developing and implementing a learning approach for people at each stage of their legal careers, from graduate lawyers to partners.
One of the first initiatives was to produce a DVD on depression, which was shown to lawyers via the participating firms and the College of Law. Next was the rollout of targeted mental health first-aid training.
The College of Law also runs a workshop entitled Wellbeing in Practice: The Resilient Lawyer, where lawyers entering the profession are brought together to consider the inherent dangers of anxiety and depression. Upcoming Resilience@Law projects include partnering with the Black Dog Institute to develop a short video clip specifically for the legal profession, and a ‘shared induction’ initiative to bring together new starters from the participating firms in a ‘lunch and learn’ workshop on wellbeing and resilience.
But what else can individual firms do to address mental health and wellbeing?
- The most important first step is to start the conversation. Create a community of champions/activists, starting with leadership. Identify individuals who are willing to share their stories and strategies for managing times of stress and their own self-care. This community will be key to building and maintaining momentum, in addition to normalising mental health challenges in the workplace.
- Invest in the right training to give your wellbeing group the tools they need to offer support. Their role will not be to diagnose or counsel, but rather to ‘recognise, respond and refer’. Promote your contacts so people know who might be a go-to in the organisation.
- Leverage off campaigns such as R U OK? day and National Mental Health Month to further connect people to the cause.
- Ensure you have a robust employee assistance program in place which is confidential and available to your whole workforce and their immediate family members.
Kellie Wade is the National Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Manager at King & Wood Mallesons. This article originally appeared in the October print edition of HRM magazine.
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