GUEST BLOG: Lawyers and Mental Health Problems – are too many heads in the sand?

This week we feature a blog by guest commentator Richard Martin, head of mental health awareness training at Byrne Dean. Following a 20 year employment law career, Richard discusses the mental health risks associated with the sector, and how this can be better understood and addressed by individuals and firms.

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Lawyers and Mental Health Problems – are too many heads in the sand?

The increasing attention given to mental health and illness over recent years means we are getting familiar with the statistics around mental illness – 1 in 6 of the adult population at any one time likely to be suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder, 1 in 4 during the course of a year.  They are rightly sobering figures.  But they are for the population at large.  What about lawyers?

Unfortunately we do not have UK specific data.  Research from the US and Australia would indicate that lawyers in those countries suffer problems associated with anxiety, depression and substance abuse at rates much higher than the general population.  There seems no reason to believe that the situation in the UK would be any different.  We really ought to be finding out, and at a time when the biggest law firms are announcing another round of increased PEP figures, there would appear to be the resource there to do it, but is there the will?

Mental illness must surely be the biggest health and safety risk facing law firms.  Anecdotally we know the problem is significant.  Why are we shying away from finding out the scale, what is causing it and how best to address it?  Other industries identify their major safety risks, investigate them, and work to eliminate them.  Why not lawyers?  Risk is, after all, our currency.  Hopefully the reason the work has not been done to date is not about wanting the problem to remain hidden.

There are a number of reasons why lawyers might be at an increased risk of problems.  Some are specific to the profession and some are not.  Some obvious causes for stress include:

  • The constant demand for excellence and perfection – perfectionism is a diagnosable condition and yet is almost a pre-requisite for a legal career;
  • The knowledge that clients are depending upon you – it is the nature of professional life to have that responsibility for the affairs of other people and is plainly not unique to lawyers but it certainly increases the level of stress and anxiety;
  • The ever-shortening timescales within which to provide advice – how those expectations have changed, along with the daily life of a lawyer, since many have entered the profession is extraordinary. How easy is it to reconcile the expectation of providing considered and wise advice, with the need to do so concisely and immediately?;
  • The expectation that one puts one’s client first;
  • The ever-increasing chargeable hours targets.

There are possibly other factors at play which demand more research and attention.  Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is a world guru on positive psychology – not trying to make us all superficially happy, but promoting positive mental health as opposed to simply focusing on illness.  His team researched the correlation between optimism and success in one’s career.  Apparently optimism goes hand in hand with success in most professions around the world, apart from lawyers, where a negative outlook on the world is more likely to be an indicator of success.  That does not have to lead to mental illness but would certainly be a risk factor for depression.  And of course it makes sense when you consider that so much of what a lawyer does is looking at risk, at what can go wrong.

There is also a growing awareness of the dangers of emotional burnout or compassion fatigue.  It is a phenomenon more readily associated with health professionals than lawyers.  It is most easily understood in two ways.

We are familiar with the risk of post traumatic stress disorder when we have experienced a personal trauma of some kind.  The same risk can exist when we are exposed to the trauma of other people – their injuries or disease in the case of medics but you do not have to think hard to realise the harrowing cases many lawyers deal with on a regular, daily basis, whether in abuse, crime, relationship breakdown, personal injury and much more.  Problems can develop from just one such instance.

The other common form is where the constant exposure to people’s problems and the professional responsibility for seeking to resolve them, eventually becomes overwhelming, resulting in a form of burnout.  Every issue that every lawyer deals with will have significant emotional importance for the client.  For that client it is a one off event.  Lawyers are dealing with them all the time.

These are just some suggestions as to why lawyers may be at greater risk of mental health problems.  It seems obvious that there are risks.  We might find that in fact the prevalence of illness is no greater than the general public in which case perhaps we are finding ways to address those risks.  But surely we owe it to ourselves, as well as those we employ and encourage in to the profession, to establish whether there is a major problem, what might be causing it and how we can learn what helps reduce the risk, so we can make the profession as safe as possible.

Richard Martin is an advisor at workplace training and consultancy firm Byrne Dean.

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