Nearly 70% of legal professionals in a newly published survey by the support charity LawCare had experienced some form of mental ill health in the previous 12 months.

LawCare today released the findings of its research study Life in the Law, from research into wellbeing in the legal profession between October 2020 and January 2021. The aim of the research, which involved more than 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man, was to take a snapshot of mental health and wellbeing in the profession to help inform future steps the profession must collectively take to improve wellbeing in the sector. 

The study questioned legal professionals on a range of areas, including work intensity (workload and working hours), and used three recognised academic scales for burnout (disengagement and exhaustion), autonomy (ability to control what, where, how, and with whom, work is done), and psychological safety (ability to speak up with ideas and questions, raise concerns or admit mistakes).

More than two thirds of participants (69%) had experienced mental ill health (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) in the 12 months before completing the survey. The most common types, experienced often to all of the time, included anxiety, low mood and depression. Of those who had experienced mental ill health, only 56% said they had talked about it at work. The most common reason for not disclosing it was the fear of stigma that would attach, resulting career implications, and financial and reputational consequences.

Highest levels

On burnout, the study suggests a high risk, with participants aged between 26 and 35 displaying the highest burnout scores, and also reporting the lowest autonomy, lowest psychological safety, and highest work intensity score. Female legal professionals, those from ethnic minorities and those with a disability also scored higher than average for burnout, and lower for autonomy and psychological safety at work. Participants with lower autonomy at work and lower psychological safety at work displayed higher burnout.

Being exposed to high levels of work intensity (high workload and long hours) was associated with higher burnout, regardless of their autonomy or the psychological safety of their work environment. A total of 28% of participants either agreed or strongly agreed that their work required them to be available to clients 24/7, and 65% said they checked emails outside of work hours to keep up with their workload.

The study also suggests that many legal professionals are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep (seven to nine hours a night), with just over a third of participants (35%) estimating they had slept between six and seven hours a night over the two weeks before completing the survey, a quarter (25%) averaging five to six hours, and nearly one in eight (12%) indicating they had less than five hours a night. As the number of hours slept per night decreased, levels of burnout increased.

On the effects of COVID-19, most participants were not furloughed (88%), and only 2% were made redundant because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, almost half expressed concern about their job security, and 58% were more concerned about their finances during COVID-19, while 59% reported being more concerned about increased pressures around work-life balance.

Just over one in five participants (22%) said they had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the 12 months before completing the survey. These individuals displayed higher burnout levels, lower autonomy, and lower psychological safety at work, and reported higher levels of work intensity.

What makes a difference to wellbeing? The most commonly provided workplace support measures were regular catchups or appraisals, mental health policies, mental health and wellbeing training, and signposting to external support. Of these, regular catchups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful, helping to bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety. Despite this, only 48% of those in a management or supervisory capacity had received leadership, management or supervisory training.

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare commented: “This research, the first of its kind in this country, provides robust evidence that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout and that those working practices in the law that undermine mental health need to change. We want this research to be the catalyst for us to come together as a profession to create that change, to create a culture in law that puts the law’s greatest asset – its people – first. The experience of living and working through a global pandemic has had a profound effect on us all and presents an opportunity like no other to reimagine the future and make it happen.”

The full report is available at www.lawcare.org.uk/lifeinthelaw