Recent articles in the national press and commentaries on related social media channels have drawn timely attention to the rising number of legal professionals suffering from mental health issues. Burnout, depression, anxiety disorders and subsequent staff attrition is now at such a level that law firms are launching wellness schemes to try and support their staff and retain talent.
In other headlines, there is a call for law firms to ensure that workloads don’t make staff ill, despite the profession’s demonstrable and embedded culture of overworking as a positive action. During the darker months of the pandemic, when entire businesses moved entirely to online working, many lawyers faced that most precarious of balancing acts, providing a first-class service for their clients while also managing the domestic and health demands of their families. Many were expected to be permanently on-call. As a result, many are now broken.
Of course, this ‘brokenness’ is endemic across all walks of life – COVID-19 has pushed the human species to the edge and beyond in a multitude of different ways. We have all been sorely tried and there are many bruises, both physical and mental, we now need to attend to. However, for law firms and the people who work for them, this situation only exacerbated an already existing and accepted culture of overworking and overburden, leading to a poor or no work/life balance. In the past, we have coached many talented lawyers – mostly women – who have been too scared to speak up when feeling overburdened and overwhelmed, fearful that it will blot their copy book career-wise.
No wonder then that a recent ‘Life in the Law’ report by the lawyer wellbeing charity LawCare, which surveyed over 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands between October 2020 and January 2021, revealed that over two-thirds of lawyers had suffered some form of mental ill-health in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30% said that they had experienced physical symptoms arising from work-related stress, with 22% feeling unable to cope and 6% reporting suicidal thoughts. This is unsurprising when you read further in that almost two-thirds of respondents (65%) said that to keep up with workload, they checked their emails outside of work hours, and nearly 30% said their work required them to be available to clients 24/7.Most worryingly, only 57% of those who had experienced mental health problems felt able to talk about it at work, mainly due to the worry of shame and stigma, and the resulting career and financial implications.
This data is shocking but not at all unexpected. Our experience of coaching legal professionals over many years clearly identifies that the attitude of ‘wealth over health’ is embedded in most large legal firms – or as one article described it, there is a ‘lack of empathy in the pursuit of business’. Such behaviours come at a high cost; the talent cost when brilliant people are forced to makes the decision to leave because they can no longer carry on; and the financial cost as law firms pay more and more to recruit and retain talent.
You could argue that lawyers must take responsibility for themselves; to learn the steps they can take to support their mental wellness and recognise the signs and symptoms of depression. They must be equipped to know when and how to seek professional mental health treatment. That is indeed true, but it is only through creating a supportive working environment that real change can take place. The responsibility does not just sit at the door of lawyers but also law firm owners and everyone in the legal industry.
During this pandemic, we have learnt so much about how a more flexible approach to working can significantly benefit both employer and employee, team leader and team. It has been proven that the hybrid model of a working week combining both remote and office-based days does not negatively impact productivity – in fact it can boost it. We know that the intensity of working in the shadow of COVID-19 has brought many people, including lawyers, to their knees, and that some large organisations are now responding by adopting hybrid work models that give their staff the flexibility required to review and reset the work/life balance. So surely this is an opportunity for leaders and influencers in the legal profession to grasp the nettle, to adjust their behaviours and expectations, to change the cultural narrative?
It cannot and must not be the case that law firms respond to these kinds of challenges only when the need arises. They must be proactive in embedding values and systems that prioritise staff health and welfare. It is probably a little too idealistic to immediately demand that organisations adopt a ‘health then wealth’ philosophy, and implementing any kind of wellness scheme must, of course be encouraged – better late than never! However, there is real bravery in initiating a conversation about the development of a long-term and meaningful cultural change plan that destigmatises mental health and promotes mental wellbeing and work-life balance.
Let’s also encourage the men and women have managed to find a better balance to stand up and be counted, to share their stories and inspire others that it is possible. There are some incredible online legal networks now emerging that aim to bring together such ambassadors for the legal industry with those wanting to make a change. These networks, and the people who reach out to them, must be nurtured as much as the bottom line or an annual report.
So let those conversations start now, and let’s see it in the headlines soon.