You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps. That’s not a joke that you are likely to see displayed on the wall of a solicitor’s office. Mental illness is no laughing matter. And anyway, all solicitors are reasoning and reasonable, sober and sensible, and fully supportive of the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013 that passed into law on 28 February.
Before a few days ago people who have had mental health issues could be barred from, for instance, holding office as an MP, company director or law firm partner. The new act sweeps away those restrictions and brings mental health legislation into line with the Equality Act, an important step towards changing attitudes towards mental illness and de-stigmatising it.
Which is all great stuff, but what has it got to do with lawyers being sober and sensible?
Well, research in the US has painted a very different picture of lawyers’ mental equilibrium. A 1991 study by John Hopkins University found that lawyers, out of 105 professions surveyed, were the most likely to suffer from clinical depression.
US federal agency the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in a 1992 report found that male lawyers are twice as likely to commit suicide as men in the general population, while research by a clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law revealed that practising lawyers exhibit clinical anxiety, hostility and depression eight to 15 times more than the general population.
Some 11% of lawyers practising in North Carolina think of killing themselves at least once a month, another piece of research revealed.
All that research was American, but things are no better this side of the pond. The Gazette reported that legal charity LawCare’s statistics for 2012 revealed that it opened 378 new case files. Lawyers most frequently sought help for stress (69% of all calls to the helpline), followed by depression (13%) and alcohol abuse (6%).
Lawyers working in litigation accounted for the highest number of calls (17%), followed by commercial (15%) and high street and private client (12%). Family lawyers and conveyancers each accounted for 10% of calls.
Closer to home, LawCare’s website gives information on how to seek help with these and other problems. Or you can call the helpline on 0800 279 6888.
Another charity, Stand to Reason, can also help lawyers. It was founded by former corporate financier and City lawyer Jonathan Naess who, after suffering mental ill-health arising from the pressures of work, decided to do something about the issue.
The charity has already worked with City firms Herbert Smith and Simmons & Simmons. Much of this work involves helping line managers and other members of the management team to understand and recognise the impact of low ‘emotional wellbeing’ – whether stress, depression or some other emotional problem – on sickness absence or performance.
Naess has the figures to back up the economic importance of emotional wellbeing. Stand to Reason worked with two divisions of a large company where sickness absence averaged around 4.5% of the 1,000 employees – costing the company £2m a year. The charity was able to transform management attitudes and understanding of the problem to such an extent that sickness absence was reduced by 15%, generating £2.47 in cost savings for every £1 spent.
So the real message is: you don’t have to be mad to work here because there are organisations out there to help you address the demons of stress, depression, substance abuse and other issues that affect your mental wellbeing.
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