Stress at work: pushing back against a culture of acquiescence
The profession should stop accepting as a given that stress is a normal part of legal life, says Pippa Allsop
Some professions are more stress-inducing than others. In law, though, we appear to suffer more greatly than many in this respect. The focus commonly falls on the junior end of the spectrum – trainees and NQs who are subjected to incessant, competitive pressure and unmanageable workloads at the outset of their careers, and who end up making foolish, sometimes dishonest, but often life-changing mistakes as a result. The Junior Lawyers Division’s ‘Resilience and wellbeing survey 2019’ found that 93.5 per cent of those surveyed had experienced stress in their role in the last month, and almost a quarter of them were experiencing “severe/extreme” levels of stress.
Apparently, solicitors in the 0-5 PQE group were the most likely to report experiencing “severe or extreme levels of work-related stress”. However, we all know that the pressures we face as solicitors are not unique to the beginning of our careers and, unfortunately, we also read about senior practitioners who have tripped up or simply burnt out due to the demands of the profession. Almost every week I come across at least one case where a legal practitioner is in front of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal being investigated for questionable conduct that, they say, was a direct result of the workplace pressure they felt they were under.
The JLD Survey identified “high workload (64 per cent) and client demands and expectations (52 per cent)” as the most common causes of stress among solicitors. This was unsurprisingly echoed in a Bellwether report ‘Stress in the Legal Profession: Problematic or Inevitable?’ which blamed “late nights, early mornings, and always being on call, thanks to technological advances and client demands”. These triggers will not surprise anyone in the profession. Interestingly, though, the Bellwether report highlighted perhaps the key problem in that it is the one which can be changed – acquiescence and apathy. The report identified that stress seemed “a normal, not an abnormal working practice in the legal profession” with a “sense of confusion and resignation in attitudes to it”. It questioned whether stress in the legal profession had become so “normalised…that the lines are blurred between what is normal and what requires help to address.” This seems an accurate analysis of the endemic problem.
The fantastically positive societal recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing in recent years means that the younger generation in particular are more alert to and in tune with this crucial issue. There is no question that the positive movement regarding mental health will only gain momentum with generations to come. This is to be welcomed of course, but what can be done to help right now, with more than 1 in 3 solicitors experiencing work-related stress? Increasingly, employers either want to or have to recognise the importance of prioritising the mental wellbeing of their employees, and this is producing encouraging results. However, there is still work to be done.
The JLD report found that the majority of respondents felt that their employers “could do more to provide help, guidance and support in relation to stress at work” and 26 Wper cent of respondents were not aware whether their company offered any such mental health and wellbeing provision.
Last month, nine more law firms signed up to the Mindful Business Charter, which was developed by Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard and launched last year. The initiative is a collaboration of financial and legal services all pledging to embody the principles of the charter in their working practices – “to promote a culture of openness about mental wellbeing, ensure responsible business is included as an area of assessment during significant procurement processes and drive forward the actions and necessary change.” Hopefully the growth of this initiative will help address what the JLD survey refers to as “the entrenched view that stress is a given that we should all just accept.”