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Two in three UK lawyers are facing burnout, research finds

Millennials are most likely to suffer from chronic stress, depression and anxiety

30 July 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

More than two in three legal professionals (73 per cent) are either concerned about or are currently suffering from burnout.

That's according to a survey of 1,000 UK legal professionals - ranging from trainee solicitors to equity partners - on their levels of workplace happiness.

"We should not underestimate the importance of happiness and wellbeing at work, especially in an industry where pressures are high and the impact of unhappiness can result in serious health concerns," said Sarah Goulbourne, co-founder of gunnercooke, which conducted the survey.

"These results really demonstrate that more needs to be done to provide legal professionals with the support they need to combat unhappiness and avoid work-related health problems."

'Burnout' is the condition attributed to chronic occupational stress, depression and anxiety.

The main causes of workplace unhappiness include: long hours (for 58 per cent of respondents); difficult clients (38 per cent); high levels of interruptions each day (35 per cent); low pay (23 per cent); deadline pressure (19 per cent); a lack of autonomy (15 per cent); and a lack of authority (15 per cent).

Additional areas of complaint include strained working relationships with bosses, partners and other colleagues.

"The single most common problem in legal practices continues to be the pressure that lawyers are under to record their time and make every single minute count," said Goulbourne.

"Not only is this an unhealthy way of working for the lawyer, it is also very unhealthy for the client. They never know how long the timer has been ticking and will most likely be unsatisfied with the bill at the end of it.

"That's why forward-thinking firms have made the decision to rip up standardised timesheets - they simply don't add value for the client."

For Goulbourne, remote and flexible working are key to improving workplace happiness.

"Clients are less concerned about the location that the work is delivered from, rather the standard of service that they receive," she said.

"Developments in virtual conferencing, secure document sharing and cloud computing, mean that service can be exceptional from any place, at any time - without chaining lawyers to one desk."

She continued: "Affording lawyers more control over their workload, whilst also providing them the resources and communication they need, will enhance their capability and, in many cases, reignite their primary motivation for becoming a lawyer - a love of law."

Causes of workplace unhappiness

The survey found that levels of happiness varied based on the age of respondents, which ranged from 20 to more than 60 years old.

Those in the 20 to 30 age group said they were least happy and most worried about burnout. That group also had the highest prevalence of claims that they were suffering from burnout.

Respondents in the 30 to 40 age bracket were happiest and least concerned about experiencing burnout.

When asked which factors could contribute towards enhancing work-related happiness, achieving a better work-life balance topped the list, chosen by 58 per cent of respondents. This was followed by a desire for less admin work (50 per cent) and higher pay (42 per cent).

Other factors which respondents said would improve their happiness levels at work are: more recognition from colleagues; more interesting work; higher-calibre clients; smaller workloads; and greater autonomy.

"In these times of austerity, workload has increased across the board and so employees are having to take work home with them, or even on holiday, in order to get everything done. Having constant access to emails on mobiles, laptops and tablets also means it's difficult for people to switch off from work," commented Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Central Lancashire.

"High stress levels amongst employees should be a big concern for businesses as it could cause backlash - if employees aren't healthy, the business won't be either and so it is in an employer's best interests to ensure and improve the psychological wellbeing of their staff."

Commenting on the research, Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of the charity LawCare, told Managing Partner: "I am not surprised by these findings, we know at LawCare how real these issues are within the legal community from the calls to our helpline.

"Younger lawyers are under significant pressure to secure a training contract in a highly competitive environment, and then when newly qualified under continued pressure to retain their position, they work long hours, often feel anxious about their abilities and can be full of doubt as to whether or not they are cut out to be a lawyer.

"The culture and practice of law can make it hard to talk about not coping with a demanding workload, which can be seen as a weakness."

She continued: "Anyone worried about work life balance or burnout can call LawCare’s free and confidential helpline 0800 279 6888."

The research compared how often legal professionals enjoy their work with how often they have the opportunity to do work that uses their skills and strengths.

Overall, there was an almost equal split between those who frequently enjoy their work (answering either 'usually' or 'always'), and those who enjoy it only part of the time (answering either 'sometimes' or 'rarely').

Those who said they enjoy their job more often than not also commonly answered that they had regular opportunities to do what they do best.

"That having the opportunity to flex your professional talents correlates with how often you enjoy your job reinforces the idea that remuneration forms just one aspect of employee motivation," said Goulbourne.

"As such, employers should consider the most effective ways to incentivise and look after their legal professionals in a way that allows them to perform to their best abilities and encourages greater happiness."

Commented Dr Mann: "It's important that businesses ensure their employees feel valued. Particularly in the legal sector, business owners are often frightened to do this in case it leads to an increase in pay rise requests, but that is rarely the case.

"Financial incentives often aren't necessary. Happiness and psychological wellbeing in the workplace can be boosted by simply recognising how much people do, making sure they know they are appreciated, sending them a birthday card, encouraging them not to check their emails outside work hours. Simple steps like this can really help to boost morale and make a business much more productive."

Across the range of respondents, the research found that legal professionals' favourite time of the day to be at work is between 8am and 10am on a Friday. Their least favourite time to be at work is after 5pm on a Tuesday.





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