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Sunshine on a rainy day

04 Oct 2019 / Wellbeing Print

Sunshine on a rainy day

As a group, legal professionals are often perceived as powerful, impervious to stress and strain, and financially protected.

The social image, however, is perhaps too often far from the truth when it comes to mental health.

A growing social movement recognising the importance of workplace wellbeing, and the serious potential consequences for our mental health resulting from workplace stress, has prompted further reflection.

Specifically, are those practising law in Ireland suffering as a result of workplace stress? What impact might this have on their mental health and ability to work effectively?

Mental-health concerns rank among the most frequent reasons for work-related illness and absence, with, for example, 91 million workdays being lost in Britain due to symptoms of mental illness.

The cost to society

The cost to society is significant, with a recent OECD report estimating the cost of mental ill-health to the Irish economy as €8 billion annually.

It has also been increasingly recognised, both nationally and internationally, that stress and other mental-health issues are an area of central importance within the legal profession.

A recently published US survey noted that mental-health problems among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively (Krill et al, 2016).

Not unique

These findings are not unique to the US. The 2018 Resilience and Well-being Survey Report by the Junior Lawyer Division of the Law Society of England and Wales notes that “more than 90% of respondents had experienced stress in their role, with 26% of those respondents experiencing severe/extreme levels of stress … More than 38% of respondents stated they had experienced a mental-health problem in the last month”.

The US National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing, in its 2017 report The Path to Lawyer Well-being, highlighted the issues and outlined a strategy for addressing mental-health concerns.

Similar activity has been undertaken in England, Scotland, Australia and Canada.

The view from Ireland

In early 2018, then Law Society President Michael Quinlan led the charge to determine the picture of mental health among lawyers in Ireland.

As a starting point, the Society’s Council agreed to conduct research into the role of the mental-health supports that were being offered by the Society to its members, and to ascertain their levels of stress and wellbeing.

Psychology at Work (CLG) was tasked by the Law Society with the initial research, which was completed in late 2018.

Likely but not definitive

The research comprised focus groups with Law Society members from around the country, interviews with individual members, and a 38-item online survey, with approximately 5% of the total membership taking part.

The findings may contain ‘selection bias’ – perhaps only those who were very stressed at work responded, or perhaps many who were very stressed didn’t have the time to respond?

As such, the findings are considered a likely but not definitive, representation of the membership as a whole.

Key findings

Overall, the results suggest that members frequently experience high levels of stress that negatively impact on their mental health and wellbeing, with 57% describing very high or extreme levels of stress.

There are many elements of working life that might be causing high levels of stress. Participants were asked about the causes of their stress.

The largest categories included ‘workload is too big’ (16%), ‘clients' expectations are too high’ (15%), and ‘insufficient time’ (12%). Other categories included ‘impacts on personal life’, ‘toxic workplace’, ‘bullying’, and ‘anxiety and fear’.

Working-life stress

Approximately half the respondents indicated that their mental health had been affected to a significant degree by the stress in their working lives.

The negative impacts of workplace stress on mental health, according to respondents, included insomnia, anxiety, depression, as well as physical-health problems.

Around two-thirds of respondents noted that stress was a negative factor on their ability to do their work.

Wellbeing index

The survey also included the WHO-5 Well-being Index. This is a widely used five-item questionnaire designed to assess subjective psychological wellbeing.

Individuals’ responses are combined into a single score out of 100, with ‘100’ representing the best imaginable and ‘0’ representing the worst imaginable well-being.

The average score for respondents was calculated and suggested a relatively low level of well-being among those who responded.

The scene in Europe

In a 2012 European Quality of Life Survey, people in Britain scored an average of 59 out of 100 on the WHO-5 index. This was the same score as Slovakia and Poland, and was lower than the EU-28 average of 63. Denmark had the highest mean score (70), while Latvia had the lowest (56).

The average for the Law Society’s group of respondents was 51. As such, solicitors who took part in the survey had a lower well-being score than the lowest average population score in the EU. This suggests a profession-based problem contributing to a lower level of wellbeing.

It also appears from the survey data that, as member stress increases, wellbeing decreases, further suggesting a corrosive relationship between stress and overall wellbeing.

High levels of stress

There were some differences in self-reported levels of stress across types of work environments and gender. Stress levels were highest among sole practitioners and lowest among in-house/public-sector environments.

It should be borne in mind, however, that all groups reported high levels of stress.

There was a significant difference in the levels of self-reported stress depending on years of experience, with those in the first five years post-qualification and those with 16-20 years since qualification having significantly higher levels than others.

It is possible that early career challenges and mid-life challenges with work and family-life balance, coupled with increasing responsibility, account for these ‘stress spikes’.

Womens’ stress

Women reported statistically higher levels of stress than men. It is unclear if this reflects a ‘willingness to report’ bias, the psychometric properties of the scales used, or a real level of stress that is different between men and women.

It is possible that women are subject to different or more stressors in the workplace, experience stress differently, or have other extraneous variables that influence how stress in the workplace is experienced, for example, child care.

As such, while the statistical levels are significantly higher, it is unclear without further study what might account for this higher level of stress among women.

Regardless, both women and men are reporting ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ levels of stress that appear to be of significant concern to many.

Current supports

The current supports (LawCare and Consult a Colleague) are known about, but very rarely used, including by those who report being most stressed and whose work is suffering as a result of stress. Feedback of the usefulness of these services, when used, was mixed.

There is no joy, no satisfaction, no ‘good’ in anything when well-being or mental health deteriorates. The quality of work-related performance suffers, quality of life suffers, and people suffer.

The workplace can be an environment that brings great benefits, including a sense of accomplishment, meaningful contribution, valued relationships, and financial security – but only if the stress and demands of the workplace are manageable and not permitted to become deleterious to mental health.

Our research would suggest that, for many, the current level of demand and workplace stress is likely making ordinary wellbeing and mental health unsustainable.

One of the telling moments for us as researchers was when several individuals spontaneously offered “I wouldn’t recommend the law to my children” as an indicator of how difficult and challenging their career path had become.

The need for change

Reflections of, at times, cynical, ‘old school’, hostile and somewhat tokenistic attitudes towards mental health and wellbeing in the workplace were noted. Individual testimonies to the challenges and distress experienced have left no doubt that members perceive a need for change.

What seemed clear to us as we spoke to members was that many people are suffering, often privately, with the stigma and fear of being judged critically in the workplace – very real barriers to seeking help.

Overcoming the barriers

Stigma is a major barrier to seeking help for mental-health problems, and some workplaces, through ultra-competitive culture or normalising the overloading of staff, can become inadvertently, but actively, hostile towards those who may need help.

No group is impervious to developing mental-health problems – about one in four adults will experience a mental-health problem at some point in life. Ironically, while the public persona of the legal profession may seem to represent a group of people impervious to mental-health issues, the lived reality may be very different.

It is greatly encouraging that the Law Society is championing the importance of mental health in the workplace. And it is worth noting that IBEC’s KeepWell Mark was awarded for the first time to a law firm, William Fry, in 2018 – hopefully a sign of things to come.

Eoin Galavan and Tom Millane
Dr Eoin Galavan and Tom Millane are psychologists and directors of Psychology at Work