We’ve all experienced stress and anxiety at some stage in our lives – we’re overworked, the kids are sick, we lose our job, we can’t achieve work/life balance, we’re snowed under with client demands and greater access to technology means we’re never really “switched off”. Increasingly, it seems that lawyers are even more likely to experience depression than those in non-legal careers. With an overwhelming amount of evidence coming to light of the high prevalence of depression in Australia’s legal industry, firms, industry leaders and community organisations are realising it is time to act.
So how can we help lawyers stop courting the blues?
No More Blues, Please
In 2009, the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute released its Courting the Blues report, which found more than 50 per cent of lawyers had experienced depression with a quarter of barristers, a third of solicitors and almost half of all law students at a high or very high risk of suffering from a diagnosable mental illness.
The Law Council of Australia’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) released in March 2014 found that 50 per cent of female lawyers and one in three male lawyers had been bullied or intimidated in the workplace.
Now we all know the usual suspects that lead to stress (constant billable hour pressure, adversarial work, long working hours, perfectionist natures and a highly competitive field) but they’re still pretty shocking statistics. Especially when you consider the fact that lawyers are the ones championing the rights of their clients and protecting others but not necessarily looking after themselves.
So how do we address this situation?
Change Perception and Workplace Culture
They key to any real institutional change is changing the culture and in-built perceptions about the legal industry and lawyers.
Speaking with Lawyers Weekly in September 2014, Geoff Bowyer, head of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), discussed the release of the Mental Health and the Legal Profession: A Preventative Strategy final report which included a raft of recommendations to help support the wellbeing of the legal profession.
“[There is a] changing perception in the community that it [should no longer be]… standard practice for lawyers to work 80 hours a week or to have intolerable hourly billing rates or to have caseloads that young lawyers just have to suck up because that’s just part of the folklaw of becoming a lawyer”, said Geoff.
Bowyer has said that many lawyers do not seek treatment because they feared that experiencing significant stress and trauma would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would affect their career progression.
“We need to ensure that by proper education and awareness it’s ok to put a call out there for help as opposed to just trying to soldier on a bear it,” he said.
It’s All About Health and Wellbeing
Health and wellbeing is the order of the day and it’s about time! It’s this kind of positive focus which will help lawyers stop courting the blues.
The LIV report recommended a focus on Victorian legal community health and wellbeing strategies, and an expansion of the Wellbeing and the Law Foundation program to deliver an independent program for the legal community that targets health promotion and primary prevention. The report identified key areas for that program including:
- undertaking research on the impact of unhealthy working environments;
- encouraging legal employers to adopt preventative strategies that aim to ensure that working as a lawyer has a health enhancing impact and implementing policies and practices to prevent and manage workplace mental illness;
- education and raising awareness around stress management, resilience training, physical health, sleep, fitness and nutrition, preventing alcohol and substance abuse and reducing the stigma associated with depression and anxiety.
Other initiatives include extending the Vic Lawyers’ Health Line Service hours, setting up peer support programs and developing the Wellness at Work program. Bravo Victoria! You’re charging ahead in the area of wellbeing and mental health and it’s high time for other states to follow, with a view to moving towards a consistent, national approach.
Communicate and Connect
At Legaler, we believe communication and connection is so important for the legal profession. Not only so that lawyers can connect with their clients (and that is very important!), but so they can connect and collaborate with each other and feel like they belong to a strong, supportive legal community. If anything is going to help court the blues, it is solidarity and connection.
We’re launching our integrated communication portal and online legal community very soon. We hope that lawyers will feel more connected than ever on our platform – to each other and to their clients. And let’s face it – the more connected we feel, the less likely we are to feel depressed and anxious.
You can request early access to our platform here.
Resources and Links for Lawyers:
The national depression initiative, providing comprehensive online information on the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and how to help someone. You can also ring their info line on 1300 22 4636 for the cost of a local call.
A not-for-profit, educational, research, clinical and community-oriented facility offering specialist expertise in depression and bipolar disorder. Their website features a host of resources and links, up-to-date research and information on community programs and getting help.
Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation
The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation is an independent organisation that aims to decrease distress, disability and the causes of depression and anxiety in the legal profession.
Providing confidential, independent 24 hour wellbeing services for LIV members.
Lifeline for Lawyers can be accessed by calling 1800 085 062 or online, every night from 8pm – 4am (AEST), at www.lifeline.org.au/crisischat. Lifeline for Lawyers is provided free of charge to members of The Law Society of New South Wales.