Mental Health in the legal workplace: How big an issue is it?

Over the past few years, the importance of emotional wellbeing at work has become a hot topic, and some would say deservedly so. According to the Institute of Directors (IoD), over half of British employers (54 per cent) have been approached by staff suffering with mental ill health.


The issue is now heavily in the spotlight after what many, including IoD director general Stephen Martin, claim has been too long. He said: “The time has come for mental health to get the recognition it deserves at work… mental wellbeing has often not received enough attention”.


However, with the ambitious, confident and determined personality types being so prevalent in the legal sector, do we need to concentrate that much on mental health issues? In fact, is there an issue to even speak about? The answer is a resounding YES – now possibly more than ever.


With the legal sector being notoriously high pressure, it rings especially true for workers in the industry to ensure they put their health first, no matter how difficult that may be. As the Solicitor’s Journal put it, “mental health issues in the legal profession are unfortunately nothing new…  plagued by the fear of coming forward, those affected are likely to suffer in silence and may turn to substance abuse, self-harm, or worse”.


Sound like scaremongering? Sadly not – the Law Society says that 95 per cent of lawyers experience ‘negative stress’ in their jobs, while 17 per cent say it is ‘extreme’ and they are not alone in their assessment.


In 2015 LawCare, the charity that provides support to the legal community, received 907 calls from lawyers with health problems – 30 per cent related to workplace stress while 20 per cent were for depression.


What’s causing these issues?

A survey by LawCare revealed back in 2012 that more than half of the profession felt stressed, and it seems as though factors, which may draw people to legal professionals, actually end up being the reason that people end up feeling so pushed to the limit.


Former Law Society president Jonathan Smithers confirms:  “Law can be a demanding career. Many of us are drawn to the intellectual challenge and thrive on the high pressure the work entails, but we should also consider our own health and wellbeing”.


Another factor is the expectations legal sector workers inflict upon themselves. Further research from the Law Society found that many people still go to work when they are unwell, which is possibly due to the demand for more billable hours, or working to close a case which needs to be completed.


These issues then worsen when people don’t talk about their problems: bottling up these feelings has proven to have an incredibly negative effect on an individual’s physical wellbeing as well as their mental health.


In fact, back in 2014 the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that “suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer”.


What do we do?


Knowing the potential negative outcomes, how do we ensure that they never have the opportunity to arise?


Firstly, employers must speak openly and honestly about mental wellbeing. Ensure that employees are aware there is a support system, and make it clear that mental and emotional health is taken just as seriously as physical health.


Also, bosses should take into account the workload and pressure that is on workers. Karen Jackson, director at Didlaw, promotes this way of thinking and then some.


Speaking to CityAM, she said: “Letting solicitors be grown-ups who manage themselves, their workloads, their output and their deadlines might be a head start to promoting an environment of trust where everyone can flourish”.


Basically, we must give employees the respect and care they deserve, whether is mental health or their physical wellbeing. That way, we can hope that the chances they’ll suffer from stress, anxiety or otherwise will be at an all time low – and their positive outlook on life can be at an all time high!