Burnout and other mental health issues are well known in the legal sector, but the scale of the problem remains uncertain. LawCare has opened a survey which all readers are invited to complete

Life in the law can be fantastic, and many thrive in this fast-paced, high-pressure industry and are very successful and happy. However, that is not the case for everyone. Lawyers and support staff regularly contact us at LawCare to talk about feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious and burnt out. We hear about long hours, demanding bosses, incivility from clients, a feeling of never being good enough or getting things done, and the constant dread of making a mistake.

Although there has been research done in other countries, notably America and Australia, we have little data from the British Isles on how the culture and practice of law affects wellbeing. Are lawyers more at risk of poor mental health than other professions? And how will the issues created by a global pandemic – a lack of routine and support structure, no separation between home and work, too much time or not enough time alone, a lack of supervision – feed into this?

To this end, LawCare set up a research committee last year made up of academics and experts with the aim of launching the biggest ever research study into the wellbeing of legal professionals in the UK, Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. This is a cross-profession, cross-jurisdiction piece of research that seeks to understand the day-to-day realities of life in the law, and includes three academic research scales for burnout, psychological safety and autonomy. All three are issues we believe to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of lawyers.

Burnout: occupational, not medical

Burnout is recognised by the World Health Organisation as an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition, and results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Those who are experiencing burnout are likely to feel:

  • low energy or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from their job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to their job;
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Legal professionals with burnout may feel angry or irritated by colleagues, or feel misunderstood. They will feel under a lot of pressure to do well at work, but will feel like they aren’t really getting anywhere as they find it impossible to focus, feel overwhelmed by the amount of the work they have to do, and procrastinate. They will often become forgetful – perhaps missing deadlines or meetings. Their judgment may be affected and they will often think of leaving their job or even the law profession entirely. We hear from many individuals like this at LawCare; our research will show how common this is in the legal profession and which specific issues may be causing it.

Psychological safety: true self

Psychological safety at work means “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. Legal professionals who feel psychologically safe at work will feel comfortable expressing their opinions and giving feedback, able to admit a mistake, to ask for help and to be their true self at work. Often legal workplaces are very hierarchical and many junior members of the profession find it very hard to put their head above the parapet – and this is where problems can start to grow.

Workplace autonomy: trust

Autonomy in the workplace means how much freedom people have at work. An autonomous workplace is based on trust, respect, dependability and integrity. Can people regulate their own hours and workload, for example? Are they able to make decisions without running them past managers? Do they feel in control of their own working life and career? Often the traditional structures in the law and the long hours culture make it difficult for legal professionals to feel autonomous, which can reduce engagement at work and job satisfaction.

Tell about your life in law

Anyone working in the legal industry in any capacity, including support staff, can complete the online questionnaire, which launched ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October and runs until the end of the year. The results will form the basis of an academic paper, and will help us to improve the support available to legal professionals and drive long-lasting change in legal workplaces so that people working in the law can thrive. We urge you to take part and share your experiences at lifeinthelaw.org.uk

More information

If you are finding things difficult and need to talk, LawCare can help. We provide emotional support to all legal professionals and support staff. You can call our confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888, email us at support@lawcare.org.uk, or access webchat and resources at www.lawcare.org.uk

Elizabeth Rimmer
The Author

Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare

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