Behind the numbers: the infinite variety of mental health stories
Lawyers' perfectionist mindset and a reluctance to talk about emotions have acted as obstacles to discussing mental health issues in the profession, but as the latest LawCare statistics show an increase yet again in calls to the charity's helpline, Elizabeth Rimmer says are ways to tackle the problem
Radio 4 have a fascinating programme ‘More or Less – Behind the Stats’, where the presenter Tim Harford goes behind the statistics each week which have been splashed across our national media, to help us understand their meaning and validity.
He often exposes the inaccuracies but also brings the statistics to life. You may have seen LawCare’s annual 2018 helpline statistics reported in this Journal and other legal media in January.
These statistics will tell you that our call numbers were up by five per cent in 2018, that the reason most lawyers called us was stress and that we had almost double the number of calls about harassment and bullying.
But what they don’t tell you is why mental health matters in the legal community or the stories of lawyers struggling every day with the pressures of life in the law.
The story of the young female trainee being sexually harassed by a senior male partner and too frightened to tell anyone, the barrister at the criminal bar feeling burnt out and wondering if this is a sustainable career, the woman returning to work after her first baby unable to cope with the long hours expected of her worried she won’t have a future at the firm.
The young barrister, the first in his family to go to university, navigating an unfamiliar work culture, the experienced partner waking up at night worried about a mistake he has made, the lawyer returning to work after time off for stress convinced the firm want to get of him, the chartered legal executive not able to tell her line manager she has been diagnosed with depression, and the single parent doing the LPC part time and juggling work, unable to get a training contract.
We listen to these stories every day on our helpline. There is little published peer-reviewed data on the mental health of British lawyers. But studies from the US show that lawyers have higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression when compared to the general. Why is this?
I don’t think it’s that lawyers are genetically pre-disposed to poorer wellbeing than anyone else; there is something about the culture and practice of law that is having an impact.
The long working hours, the perfectionist mentality, the stigma of admitting you are feeling overwhelmed or have a mental health issue, managing the expectations of clients, working with vulnerable people, the intensive study, lack of support for management responsibilities, the forced cultural norms that can lead to exclusion, no vocabulary to talk about emotions and how our work affects us, these are some of the factors that can have an effect.
The good news is – there are positive steps that the legal community can take to address some of these. And I think the most important of these are – education, leadership and talking.
The journey to a mentally healthier legal profession starts in law school. The current generation of young lawyers are the future leaders of our profession. We should be educating them how to look after their mental health and to seek help early if they are feeling the pressures of study or work - to help them understand that anyone can struggle and if you are, it’s not a sign of weakness.
Junior lawyers need support and guidance to achieve their potential. We know from a large study carried out by the American Bar Association in 2016 that making the transition into practice is the most vulnerable time in a lawyer’s career.
The spate of recent SRA cases involving junior lawyers serves as a stark reminder of why this is so important. No one wants to see headlines about young lawyers being struck off because they made mistakes they were too frightened to tell anyone about.
Good supervision and a supportive work environment may have prevented these young people losing out on a career in the law and the reputation of the firms they worked for compromised.
Depression, anxiety and stress are now the leadingcause of sickness absence at work costing the UK economy more than £70bn per year.
The Health and Safety Executive recently placed lawyers as the third most stressed profession. There is no doubt that the legal profession has to move towards a culture that better supports good mental health and wellbeing.
Mental heath and wellbeing is a leadership duty. To create a culture in your organisation that is open and accepting about mental health, senior partners have to be on board. The commitment of senior managers sends a clear message that staff mental health and wellbeing really does matter.
Staff take cues from how their leaders behave, for many the way they are treated in the workplace and the behaviour and role-modelling of their managers makes a big difference to how they feel about themselves and their work.
Mental health and wellbeing of staff should be on the agenda at partner’s meetings.
It can be very difficult in practice to admit to colleagues that you are feeling the pressure of work or have a mental health condition.
You may be a junior member of the firm and feel that admitting you are struggling will be a career limiting step, or a senior partner worried that opening up may reduce the confidence of colleagues in your abilities to lead.
Lawyers are used to solving other people’s problems and it can be very hard to admit that you have any of your own. In a competitive, driven working environment you may feel there is no room for anyone who isn’t on top of their game.
However we know that talking to someone is the first step to getting help and support and that in practice when people share how they are feeling in the workplace, the response is usually positive.
Try and talk informally with a trusted colleague or your manager if you feel they might be helpful. Keep a note of any practical issues that are contributing to how you are feeling – eg workload, lack of supervision and explain how this is impacting you to explore if the firm can provide support such as flexible hours, delegating some of your caseload or time off.
If you don’t feel you can talk to anyone at work, then try and talk to a friend or family member but if you don’t feel you can do this, then make an appointment to see your GP.
Talking your problems through makes a real difference and provides reassurance you are not alone. You can also call our free, independent and confidential LawCare helpline on 0800 279 8888.
Our trained staff and volunteers will listen without judgement and help you work out what steps you can take to try and improve your situation. We have been listening to lawyers for over 20 years.
As mental health and wellbeing climb higher up the agenda in our legal community I would like to see less statistics about how many lawyers are stressed, anxious and depressed and more statistics about how many law schools are embedding mental health and wellbeing into the curriculum and how many firms have embraced a culture that enables lawyers to be at their best.
Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare lawcare.org.uk