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Challenging mental health stigma among lawyers

Law firms must take the lead on combating workplace stress and depression

2 February 2017

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More lawyers than ever are seeking help with stress, raising questions about what law firms, chambers, and professional bodies are doing to combat the issue of poor mental health and wellbeing among the ranks of legal professionals.

The charity LawCare spoke to 555 callers last year – an increase of 12 per cent on the 496 it received in 2015. Some 912 calls were received in 2016 in total compared to 907 the year before. Women made up 62 per cent of all callers.

‘What the increase in calls to the helpline shows is that more people are aware of LawCare and the specialist support we offer across the legal profession,’ the charity’s chief executive, Elizabeth Rimmer, explained. ‘We need to raise awareness about how to spot if you or a colleague may be experiencing some difficulty, and that there is support available. We need to work together as a community to challenge stigma, and to ensure that anyone in need of support is able to come forward without fear.’

Stress (up from 30 to 38 per cent) and depression (down from 20 to 12 per cent) accounted for the highest amount of calls received by the charity in 2016. LawCare said it was ‘not surprised’ to see stress come out on top and has concentrated its efforts on reducing the impact on those affected. ‘Where stress is concerned we try to find out what they think is causing it – not all stress-related calls are about work issues – and ask them how they are coping,’ said Rimmer.

Angus Lyon, a consultant at Mears, Hobbs & Durrant and author of A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress, said it was important for law firms and professional bodies take the lead on promoting mental health in the workplace. ‘We are beginning to turn the corner in looking at wellbeing in the legal profession but there is still vast amount to be done in terms of awareness and the realisation that we can’t be truly healthy unless we are mentally healthy,’ he told Solicitors Journal.

‘The paradigm is beginning to shift. There is a growing realisation in a number of organisations that they need to be proactive as well as reactive as far as wellbeing is concerned. Things are starting to move slowly as engagement on these issues increases among those who have responsibility of leading law firms and chambers.’

LawCare said it is encouraging all lawyers to learn strategies for coping with stress, which include taking regular breaks, spending more time with friends and family, eating well, and taking exercise. Most importantly, however, Rimmer urged sufferers not to stay silent. ‘It can feel like a sign of weakness to admit you aren’t coping but talking goes a long way towards addressing the issues.’

Chetna Bhatt and Lauren Giblin, co-founders of Being Lawyers, have been working with the profession to help lawyers increase their performance and reduce stress with a view to improving their overall health. ‘Many of us live with the innocent misunderstanding that stress is caused by external circumstances, such as heavy workloads, tight deadlines, and long, unpredictable hours. Given this, it is understandable that lawyers’ stress levels are so high. However, a lawyer’s state of mind, not just the circumstances they find themselves in, determines their experience, they told Solicitors Journal.

Asked how lawyers can lower their stress levels, Bhatt and Giblin advised acknowledging you are simply in a low quality state of mind and not thinking as clearly as normal; resist the temptation to fight whatever you are feeling and let the feelings of stress naturally pass; and notice how your noisy mind naturally quiets and a state of clarity emerges so you can deal with any challenges you may be facing.

Law Society research shows that 95 per cent of lawyers experience ‘negative stress’ in their jobs – with 17 per cent describing such stress as ‘extreme’. LawCare is driving the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce in England and Wales, and Legal Wellbeing Scotland, where organisations across the legal community are collaborating to raise awareness and tackle the stigma associated with talking about mental health issues, particularly at work.

Other initiatives, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s ‘Your health, your career’ campaign the Bar Council’s recently launched wellbeing portal, and events such as Mental Health Awareness Week, are also to be welcomed, but as Rimmer emphasised ‘there is still much to be done’.

Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

If you would like to talk about a personal or professional issue that may be affecting you, call LawCare’s free and confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888: 9am-7.30pm during the week; 10am-4pm on weekends and bank holidays, or email support@lawcare.org.uk

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mental wellbeing mental health time to talk LAWCARE Being Lawyers legal professions wellbeing taskforce LAW SOCIETY SRA