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Wellbeing in the law 2015

News

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.26

New tailored workshops will help firms manage staff suffering depression and anxiety.

Wellbeing workshops tailored to small and intermediate law firms are to be rolled out this year with the aim of developing a legal workforce with good mental health.

A joint initiative of the Wellbeing and the Law (WATL) foundation and the Black Dog Institute, the workshops will help firms manage staff suffering anxiety and depression and work towards prevention.

The LIV’s mental health project manager, lawyer Laura Helm, said the three-hour workshops will give a practical overview of mental health issues, necessary policies, handling staff disclosures, obligations, managing a return to work and work adjustments.

The tailored workshop program is one of several planned initiatives targeting different sectors of the legal community that has come out of the LIV’s 2014 report Mental Health and the Legal Profession: A Preventative Strategy (http://tinyurl.com/psbrun6).

The report said promoting mental health and wellbeing and managing depression and anxiety is no one person or organisation’s responsibility. Rather, this falls on a collective of individuals, family and friends, employers, educational institutions and jurisdictional stakeholders.

Mental health first aid

A second initiative, dependent on funding, is mental health first aid training specifically for lawyers by Mental Health First Aid Australia.

“The vision is for employees to do this and be mental health first aid officers in the workplace,” Ms Helm said.

Goals beyond initial immediate help and support, together with encouragement to seek appropriate professional help, include improving the mental health literacy of lawyers and raising awareness of individual risk factors for themselves and their colleagues.

“The research shows this increases help-seeking behaviour, decreases stigma and people have more awareness about when it is time to go to a professional,” Ms Helm said.

LIV Legal Fun Run

Another initiative is relaunching the annual LIV Legal Fun Run as a mental health awareness event. It would be part of a health promotion campaign aimed at younger lawyers with a work-life balance workshop series emphasising the benefits of exercise, good nutrition and sleep.

Ms Helm said this is in keeping with emphasising a healthy lifestyle to counter mental health issues.

Otherwise, the Vic Lawyers’ Health Line has been expanded with a psychologist available around the clock for LIV members.

“If you feel like you need professional help but don’t know what you need, it offers up to three confidential counselling sessions, either on the phone or face to face,” Ms Helm said.

There is also a new website with resources for lawyers, family, colleagues, managers and employers (www.viclawyershealth.com.au).

Separate to the initiatives, WATL will engage more broadly with the legal community to help remove the stigma that exists with mental health issues. A range of speaking engagements by WATL ambassadors and board members is planned. With LIV support, WATL will also hold lunches with law firms and barristers’ clerks where they can hear first-hand from ambassadors and learn about WATL’s programs.

Ultimately, WATL, whose patron is Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, aims to see more stakeholders involved in its governance through membership and representation on the board – until such a time as health and wellbeing is second nature across the legal profession and the organisation is no longer necessary.

Lawyers’ personality

A Brain & Mind Research Institute survey found almost one third of solicitors and one in five barristers suffered from clinical depression. And while most lawyers cope with stress – some even thrive on it – for others, its symptoms can lead to anxiety and depression.

What determines whether stress becomes distress is complex, with other life stressors such as relationship breakdown and bereavement contributing; so, too, an individual’s personality, coping strategies and working environment.

The attributes that can characterise a good lawyer – achievement-oriented, rational analysis, materialism, competitiveness to the point of aggressiveness, emphasising rights rather than an ethic of care, for instance – can also impact negatively on mental health.

Raising awareness of this potential impact on wellbeing, risk factors and identifying when help is needed, plus stress management and resilience training, are part of the LIV strategy, as outlined in the 2014 report.

It said work environment issues – bullying, aggression, discrimination and unreasonable expectations, for example – must be addressed too.

The report recommends encouraging legal employers to adopt preventative strategies “to ensure that working as a lawyer has a health enhancing impact” and to implement policies and practices to prevent and manage mental illness arising in the workplace.

A change in behaviour and attitudes is needed, along with safe working environments, Ms Helm said.

“A lot of initiatives were just focusing on the individual. A key message is that is not enough, it is about doing it at all levels simultaneously, about the benefits of a whole of profession approach for cultural change.”

For help: Vic Lawyers Health Line 24 hours ph 1300 664 744, www.viclawyershealth.com.au.

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