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Mental health: Renewed focus on lawyers’ mental health

Mental health: Renewed focus on lawyers’ mental health

By Karin Derkley

Health Wellbeing 

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New wellbeing manager Megan Fulford will boost the LIV’s efforts to support members in challenging times.

Even before COVID-19 upended everything in 2020, mental health and wellbeing was an issue in the legal profession. 

The VLSB+C’s 2019 Lawyer Wellbeing Project reported that lawyers are more likely than other professionals to suffer “moderate to severe symptoms of depression”, and some studies have found rates of self-reported depression to be as high as around one in two among law students, solicitors and barristers.

In 2020, first the disastrous bushfires and then COVID-19 amplified anxiety, with many practitioners experiencing financial and business stress on top of existing professional challenges related to long hours, competitive workplaces, behavioural issues and vicarious trauma. 

LIV president Tania Wolff says adding a pandemic to the disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression experienced by lawyers has created “a very potent and damaging cocktail. You’d be hard placed to find anyone in the profession who hasn’t suffered and been extremely challenged over the past year”. 

In response to this, and joining law firms taking this step, the LIV has engaged a wellbeing manager. Megan Fulford is a clinically trained psychologist and has worked in private and public organisations including the AFL. She has extensive experience in emergency services including Victoria Police, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Ambulance Victoria.

Ms Fulford says she is looking forward to building on the wellbeing work already being done at the LIV, which has long had a focus on addressing mental health in the profession. In 2014 the LIV published a mental health and wellbeing reports, the first comprehensive exploration of the issue in the Victorian legal profession. Since then the LIV has set up various programs aimed at helping members.

That same year the LIV set up the Wellbeing and the Law foundation (WATL) in conjunction with the Victorian Bar. In 2016 the LIV partnered with Converge International to provide members with an employee assistance program (EAP) available 24/7 for up to three hours per issue per year.

In 2019, the LIV in conjunction with the Victorian Bar and supported by WATL held nine wellbeing seminars delivered by external experts, which included vicarious trauma training, a six-part emotional wellbeing workshop and a mental health first aid training session.

In 2020 the LIV held four wellbeing webinars tailored to the issues that the legal profession was experiencing during COVID-19, delivered by external experts. 

Ms Fulford’s work will build on these initiatives. She says her initial focus will be on understanding the needs of LIV members through meeting with and canvassing the views of the LIV staff and members, and reviewing relevant research on the issues impacting legal practitioners.

“It is important to understand the specific drivers of high rates of mental health issues within the legal profession and develop strategies that are aimed at addressing the underlying factors that may contribute to this,” she says.

On the basis of that Ms Fulford will be developing a strategic wellbeing plan that is “member-driven and evidence-based and which provides a framework for best practice in wellbeing initiatives for the LIV. 

“I also have a strong focus on preventative interventions and the principles of positive psychology, and will be seeking to look at ways to make these principles and practices a focus in our wellbeing interventions." 

LIV CEO Adam Awty says that even before the bushfires and the pandemic hit, the LIV was considering ways to provide members with additional wellbeing support. 

“There’s always been a recognition that the mental health and wellbeing of our members is a priority. It’s really important for the LIV to have an ongoing conversation with members about the importance of maintaining and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of those in the profession. The additional investment we’re making on behalf of the membership and broader profession will be critical to expanding our support and reach.”

The LIV has an important role to play in assisting members both at a practical level and emotionally, Tania Wolff says. “I am proud the LIV has responded by creating this new role and look forward to Megan Fulford working with us to develop a comprehensive wellbeing strategy to best support our members during these especially difficult, uncertain and changeable times.”

The new hire comes as attitudes towards mental health issues in the legal profession are steadily changing. 

While the VLSB+C report found that rates of psychological distress were high in the profession, a more positive finding was that wellbeing and mental health are no longer unmentionable issues. While in the past admission of a mental health problem may have been regarded as a personal weakness, that has gradually shifted to a focus on factors within the profession that drive those stresses, the report found. The VSLB+C says it wants to highlight those systemic drivers of poor wellbeing and identify what changes might be needed to improve wellbeing outcomes.

MindsCount, formerly the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, has also shifted focus from the individual to point to factors in the legal workplace that can cause psychological distress and illness among employees. These include the way work is carried out (deadlines, workload, work methods) as well as the context in which work occurs (relationships and interactions with managers, supervisors, colleagues and clients).

MindsCount has issued guidelines that aim to promote cultural change in legal workplaces to improve wellbeing. Signatories to the guidelines commit to working towards creating a psychologically safe workplace for staff, on the basis that well employees are more productive and have significantly lower absenteeism and disability rates. 

The imperative for a psychologically healthy workplace is borne out by the increasing number of law firms that promote wellbeing and mental health programs to future recruits. 

Allens, Ashurst, Clayton Utz and Herbert Smith Freehills have hired wellbeing managers or psychologists, while King & Wood Mallesons has developed resilience@law to raise awareness around mental health, address stigma around mental health conditions and provide education, self-care strategies, support and resources.

Part of the rationale for addressing these issues could be that employers are exposing themselves to liability if they neglect employee mental health. Employment lawyer Paul Horvath says that while a certain amount of stress is acceptable in the workplace, there is a fine line between being driven and inspired by stressors, and finding oneself dragged down by a high pressure environment including, he says “long hours, the pressure to meet billables and generate business for the firm, tight (and often unexpected) deadlines, an unbalanced workload, the pressure to deliver the best outcome to our clients no matter the circumstances and rapidly changing technologies (made evident by the pandemic)”.

Employers and managers must be the drivers of cultural change within their workplace, Mr Horvath says. “Those that ignore this issue face significant risks of breaching legislation, duty of care and company policies, and a demotivated workforce in the long term.” ■


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