The fear of stigma attaching to any disclosure of mental ill-health is a huge issue for workplace wellbeing, the Law Society Business of Wellbeing summit heard today (30 September).
The law is a noble profession, but can be a draining one, delegates heard, and there is both a moral and a business case for managers at the highest level taking full ownership of mental health issues among their employees.
Legal workloads can be huge and this may bring on mental health difficulties, the summit heard. And lawyers are often expected to display ultra-resilience in the face of extreme difficulties.
Matheson partner Tara Doyle said that the law has a high-performance culture and that lawyers often give deeply of themselves in dealing with clients, and taking their burdens to heart.
Lawyers also tend to encounter clients at stressful times in their lives.
The difficulties of achieving a work-life blend are exacerbated in these times of a global pandemic, since employees are being asked to work from a bedroom or study, or perhaps a cramped apartment.
The law and wellbeing
The law requires that employers do not directly or indirectly discriminate against those with mental health issues, ByrneWallace employment law partner Michelle Ní Longáin explained.
She gave an overview of how the law engages with wellbeing and mental health issues across various jurisdictions.
Irish law is somewhat stronger than in either the EU or the UK, in that it requires no discrimination between disabilities, the summit heard.
Those with mental health conditions must not be treated less favourably than those with a physical illness.
Michelle Ní Longain said that often employers have “beautiful policies” but they must be careful not to over-promise and under-deliver, by basing them on a template from a large employer, when the setting is actually a small firm.
She continued that ‘reasonable accommodation’ is a very powerful provision under the law, requiring employers to put in place appropriate, effective and practical measures, that relate to the needs of the particular employee.
However, an employee assistance programme is not a cure-all, she warned, but is simply something an employee is expected to have.
The summit heard that both client and firm should work together in terms of respecting boundaries.
One attendee referred to a new mother who on return from maternity leave was expected to continue with the same unsustainable workload and hours.
In that instance, the client weighed in on her behalf, and essentially forced the firm to give the new mother the needed flexibility.
UCC psychologist Dr Sharon Lambert said that lawyers who feel stressed should consider going for psychotherapy, and look on it as a ‘facial for the brain’, instead of turning to unhealthy substance use.
In a fascinating session with mental health activist Blindboy, Dr Lambert said that working in criminal justice must have its frustrations, which leads to stress and burnout.
Blindboy asked Dr Lambert about vicarious trauma and whether lawyers can be invested emotionally as well as profesionally with their clients.
Dr Lambert responded that vicarious trauma could happen for legal practitioners dealing with clients and exposed to the trauma of another person, for example in difficult family law or sexual abuse cases.
'How much of yourself are you giving away?" she asked.
"How much of you is left at the end of the day?"
She suggested that lawyers also may invest energy into trying to compartmentalise the difficulties of dealing with clients, but this takes energy away from other important areas.
The summit, which was organised by Julie Breen, professional wellbeing project co-ordinator at the Law Society, received very positive feedback from the practitioners who logged in.