The legal profession has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. From the International Bar Association’s report on bullying and sexual harassment to the looming mental health crisis, there is a growing sense that all is not well. A common theme is the high levels of stress being experienced by lawyers at all levels.
The recent Stress in the Legal Profession survey by LexisNexis asked ‘is stress just an inevitable part of being a solicitor’ and ‘has stress become so normalised in the legal profession that the lines are blurred between what is normal and what requires help to address?’. The survey found that nearly two-thirds of solicitors experience high levels of stress, with three-quarters stating that stress and mental wellbeing is a major issue for the profession.
We all know about the demands of the job and most of us are likely to say that we work well under pressure. Unfortunately, when that pressure turns into negative stress it adversely affects our performance. Experiencing prolonged periods of stress can also have a negative impact on health.
Many junior lawyers feel unable to raise issues with their employer when they are struggling to cope. For the last three years, the Junior Lawyers Division has undertaken research into the stress and mental ill-health experienced by our constituency. Stress was defined as being under too much emotional or mental pressure.
One in 15 junior lawyers reported experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work
The research showed that over 90% of junior lawyers experience stress at work, with over 25% experiencing severe or extreme levels of stress. Qualified solicitors were the group most likely to report experiencing severe or extreme levels of work-related stress (27%), compared with 20% of trainees and 22% of paralegals.
The most frequently mentioned causes of work-related stress were high workload, client demands and expectations, lack of support and ineffective management. It is within a law firm’s control to change each of these factors. As a result of the levels of stress, over 65% of junior lawyers had experienced disrupted sleep and almost 60% reported it having a negative impact on their mental health. One in 15 junior lawyers reported experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work in the month leading up to taking the survey.
Some 48% of junior lawyers reported experiencing mental ill-health (whether formally diagnosed or not) in the month leading up to taking the survey. This is a significant increase from the 38% reported in 2018 and 26% reported in 2017. Only one in five of these junior lawyers had told their employer about their mental ill-health and, worryingly, over three-quarters said their employer should be doing more.
On 28 May the World Health Organization announced that it would be recognising ‘burn-out’ as a chronic condition on its International Classification of Diseases list from 2020. It classifies burn-out as a ‘syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. It has three characteristics: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
It is often high-performers who are most at risk of experiencing burn-out. It is therefore imperative for employers to ensure that they are creating supportive workplaces. Last year the JLD released best practice guidance for employers. Split into three core pillars, (1) support (2) culture and (3) education/training, this recommended that employers focus on enabling organisational change to create mentally healthy workplaces.
To ensure a sustainable workforce, employers should proactively support their employees to prevent burn-out, rather than taking only reactive action. By being proactive, employers help create working environments where employees can flourish. In organisations with a positive working culture, employees feel empowered to take time for self-care by ensuring they have sufficient time away from the office, undertake regular exercise and enjoy time socialising with friends outside work. This also helps reduce absence and ensures the organisation attracts and retains the best talent.
There are, of course, legal obligations, such as the common law duty of care to take all reasonable steps to ensure employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. In order to prevent a claim for personal injury or negligence, an employer must ensure that they do not cause, or fail to prevent, physical or psychological injury.
It is also worth highlighting that for employees experiencing long-term chronic stress, their condition may constitute a ‘disability’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. If an employee is disabled then an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the disabled employee’s working practices. Regardless of whether an employee is disabled for the purposes of the legislation or not, if an employee is requesting adjustments at work in order to perform better there is a business case to provide them with what they reasonably require.
The JLD calls on employers to ensure their employees have the necessary support to protect them from the risk of burn-out. We also continue to lobby the SRA to hold employers to account.
Kayleigh Leonie is a Law Society Council member representing solicitors 0-5 years’ PQE. If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can contact LawCare for support on 0800 279 6888 (www.lawcare.org.uk)