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Mental health: Barriers to wellbeing revealed

Mental health: Barriers to wellbeing revealed

By Carolyn Ford

Health Wellbeing 

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High levels of psychological distress are seen to be driven by systemic factors within the profession, according to a new report from the Victorian Legal Services Board.

A concerning new report laying bare the barriers to the wellbeing of Victorian lawyers is hoped to usher in a new era of legal practice.

Now is the time to start testing and trialling new initiatives to support the wellbeing of legal professionals, says the “Lawyer Wellbeing Project; Reflections on wellbeing in the legal profession and suggestions for future reforms” report by Dr Michelle Brady1 for the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB+C).

Descriptors like “sink or swim”, “alpha male”, “psychotic”, “tyrant”, “sexism” and “trauma”, which pepper the project report, leave no doubt about the need to address law’s deeply rooted cultural complexities and achieve reform.

The six-month project, done in 2019, came out of a growing chorus of voices drawing attention to very high rates of psychological distress, burnout, anxiety, depression and vicarious trauma affecting legal professionals. 

Some studies put depression at one in two among law students, solicitors and barristers. And, according to the VLSB+C report, rates of depression appear to increase with age, suggesting lawyers don’t adapt to stressors in the profession over time. Further, depressed lawyers are more likely to self medicate with drugs or alcohol, with the rate of problematic drinking put at 32 per cent. They are also likely to view treatment suspiciously, with a substantial number indicating counselling might do more harm than good. Levels of understanding of mental illness within the profession appear poor, resulting in workplace discrimination against affected individuals. 

Behind the statistics are profound impacts on individuals and families and also significant financial costs for employers – an average $3200 per employee experiencing mental illness, $5600 for employees with severe mental illness. 

The high levels of psychological distress are seen to be driven by systemic factors within the profession, says the report, leading to the project’s aim of shifting the conversation about lawyer wellbeing from a personal resilience focus to systemic drivers of poor wellbeing and ways to address them. 

Interviews with 37 people working across the profession – students, early career lawyers, solicitors, barristers, current and retired judges and those in regulation and training – were analysed. Most had personal experience of or witnessed systemic drivers of poor wellbeing – overwork, bullying, sexism, racism and a valorisation of suppression of emotions over personal vulnerability and emotional intelligence. 

One had an interest in wellbeing from observing “so many unhappy lawyers and unhappy clients”; another from involvement in a royal commission they described as “18 months of hell. [We were] pilloried every day and burned out”.

Four main areas of findings were identified: 

Acculturation 

Participants felt acculturated early in their career into a professional culture that made it difficult to achieve wellbeing. It began in law school, which had a culture of overwork and stress that was seen as training for the workplace with its unreasonable workloads and hyper-competitiveness. The law was taught to the exclusion of other important “soft” skills.

Early career lawyers learned not to prioritise wellbeing and failure to cope was a personal weakness. Pressure came from peers, firms, bosses, clients and themselves (perfectionism and self-criticism).

A recurring theme was the lack of training in interpersonal and coping skills needed to manage client relationships and exposure to vicarious trauma. They were left to “sink or swim” and operated in a culture of “build your own resilience”. 

Negative early experiences were common, with half recounting bullying and working very long hours (14 hours, six days a week in one case) for “psychotic”, “tyrant”, “intolerable” bosses. Mismanagement by senior staff described as “abusive, selfish, erratic, bad-tempered, [who] can’t give proper direction or take proper instructions” had been observed.

Sexual harassment was another negative experience. At a mid-tier suburban firm, one junior female lawyer said sexual harassment and racism were “rife”. Male staff tried to touch the legs of junior female staff; an HR manager told her she was “too smiley” and a senior male staffer told her he “really liked Asian women”.

Some said law graduates almost expected to be treated badly and competitiveness for positions meant they were willing to accept poor conditions. They were told they were “lucky to be working there”. Some interviewees reported hyper critical work cultures, with “punitive consequences if a task is not done the right way”, also “no positive feedback” and “perfectionism insisted upon”. Any focus on wellbeing could be career-limiting. 

For some, negative experiences were the catalyst for leaving the law.

Barriers 

Barriers to improving wellbeing included widespread acceptance of bullying (one third of respondents had experienced or witnessed it) and poor managerial training. Also, a lack of support for vicarious trauma and resistance to debriefing. Women and people from minority groups suffered further barriers including sexual harassment and sexist or racist comments. Sexism and the “alpha male” culture was problematic with the latter driving inappropriate drug and alcohol use to manage stress.

Valuing wealth and power over wellbeing was another issue, with success seen as generating income and winning cases. A lack of empathy and good management skills was not problematic unless it affected wins and revenue. 

Respondents said it was unacceptable to express fear or distress and abuse was to be tolerated. 

Frequent exposure to vicarious trauma and resistance to debriefing was a key barrier to wellbeing. Examples were “terrifying/exhausting/draining” clients, pro bono work with very disadvantaged clients, child sex abuse cases and material and other traumatic content. One early career lawyer was “handed a file for an incest case and basically told to get down to the court”. This behaviour was widespread, with one saying they “just have to deal and absorb vicarious trauma and threats from clients”. The view was simply “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”.

Pregnant women and those with childcare responsibilities were poorly accommodated. One woman was told she was “not as sharp as you used to be” after she had children. Career progression was also problematic for women with the system relying on individual patronage and no formal processes, and male partners happier to give men opportunities because it was easier, one said.

Achieving change

Most were positive about change in recent years and conveyed optimism. Once “unmentionable”, wellbeing was now normalised. The mindset that it was a privilege to be a legal professional and one should not complain was becoming less dominant.

A systemic approach had not yet been embraced by the legal profession but there was increasing momentum towards this goal with positive modelling by supervisors and initiatives by organisations. 

The community sector was leading the way with a strong focus on workplace culture. Vic Bar was investing in wellbeing and achieving positive change, with champions on the bench, the “tough guy voice now ostracised”, a seminar on perfectionism and ideas for events, with the LIV, on unhealthy dynamics in interpersonal relations in law. 

Despite several high-profile incidents, including the two suicides of acting and retired magistrates, Victoria was seen as a leader on wellbeing. There were “islands” of wellbeing activity including an employee assistance program (EAP) at the Magistrates’ Court and collaborations with the Wellness for Law Network. 

Overall, respondents felt it was no longer accepted to expect people to withstand long hours and exposure to vicarious trauma without support. And negligent or bullying management practices were increasingly viewed critically. There was, however, frustration with the pace and direction of change and resourcing for it. 

Improving wellbeing 

Respondents suggested:

  • comprehensive EAP with support for substance abuse and mental health problems 
  • promotion of counselling and debriefing programs
  • reforms to court practices – ensuring physical safety of legal professionals, induction programs
  • improved management training so health and safety equals legal practice obligations to clients
  • encouraging individuals to pursue life outside work, stand up for themselves and disregard stereotypes of success in the law
  • linking wellbeing and appropriate behaviour with CPD requirements and PC renewals. 

Also, the regulator’s messaging at PC renewal time around unacceptable behaviour, illegal/immoral conduct and overwork could be stronger, one respondent said. “You shouldn’t have a PC if you’re sexually harassing people or bullying.”

The report said much had been achieved, but more remained to be done before most legal professionals achieved wellbeing. Change would be complex and sometimes slow but the direction of current change was positive and there was momentum for improvement. ■

  1. Dr Michelle Brady, Research Fellow, University of Sydney Business School, and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in Sociology, University of Melbourne.

Taking the lead

Victorian Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay has made lawyer wellbeing a priority policy issue since taking the role in 2018. Here she comments on the VLSB+C report’s findings.

“Poor wellbeing affects a lawyer’s ability to do their job.

Our research suggests poor wellbeing has an impact on staff retention. This compromises the depth and quality of the profession. Last year, we held a workshop with dozens of lawyers and other professionals in the legal sector which highlighted the pervasiveness of poor wellbeing and its consequences. Poor wellbeing is unsustainable. When lawyers are unwell, they can’t appropriately fulfil the very important role they play in the legal system. Wellbeing

is both personally important to lawyers, and important

to the system as a whole. While our report is based on semi-structured interviews with a relatively small – though diverse – group of individuals, many other studies have highlighted poor wellbeing as an issue of concern in the profession. In 2018, the Executive Health Solutions study gathered data from more than 10,000 executive health assessments in 200 companies across 18 sectors. This showed lawyers have suffered the biggest fall in general health, dropping from first place to seventh in the last financial year. But the biggest fall was in lawyers’ mental health, where the sector dropped from 12th place to 16th.

When you become a lawyer, you sign up for a life of hard work, heavy responsibility and high expectations. You don’t sign up for a life of isolation, depression, intense and unmanageable anxiety or burnout. Yet all too often, that’s exactly what you get. We need to decide, as a profession, to do something about it.”

 


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