Lawyers have a “high risk of burnout” according to the latest research by LawCare, with a majority experiencing mental ill-health in the previous 12 months.
The law mental health and wellbeing support website, surveyed 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man for its report “Life in the Law.” Its aim is to inform the future steps the law profession must take to improve wellbeing in the sector.
Using the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory as a measurement tool, the participants averaged a score of 42.2; this corresponds to a high risk of burnout. The research also shows there are particularly high levels of burnout in relation to exhaustion.
Further, 69% of respondents had experienced mental ill-health in the previous 12 months before completing the survey. The most common experiences of mental health included anxiety, low mood and depression.
While 56.5% say that had talked about their mental ill-health at work, the most reason for not disclosing mental health issues in the workplace was the fear of stigma. This could, respondents said, result in “career implications and financial and reputational consequences.”
The research also found that respondents who reported having low autonomy at work—the inability to control what work they do and where and how they do it—displayed higher levels of burnout. Those with lower psychological safety at work—the inability to speak up with ideas or questions or raise concerns or mistakes they have made—also displayed higher burnout.
However, respondents exposed to high levels of work intensity—for example working long hours or having a high workload—were also associated with higher burnout. This was regardless of how much autonomy they had or how psychologically safe their work environment was.
Women, Ethnic Minorities and Disabled Law Professionals Experience Higher Levels Of Burnout
The research from LawCare shows there are different factors that shape wellbeing within a work environment.
Out of the participants that took part in the research, 72.6% of respondents were women and 26.6% were men. The research found that women averaged higher in burnout compared to their male counterparts. They also reported having lower autonomy and lower psychological safety at work.
LawCare also found that law professionals aged between 26 and 35 years old suffered higher burnout levels—they also had the lowest autonomy, lowest psychological safety and highest work intensity.
When it came to ethnicity, those identifying as belonging to an ethnic minority group (11.5%) reported high burnout rates compared to their white peers. This was also the same for those with a disability (9.3%). Both groups of people were found to have lower psychological safety at work.
Worryingly, just over 20% of respondents say that have experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination within their workplace. Not surprisingly, they also had higher burnout scores, lower autonomy and psychological safety at work. They also had higher levels of work intensity.
Law Professionals Worried About Repercussions Of Opening Up About Mental Health
As part of the published report, an anonymous trainee chartered legal executive says: “I have chosen not to speak about my mental health issues at work for fear of not being supported, being labelled as not being able to cope or a person who is a problem within the workplace.”
A barrister explains: “I feel those in the legal profession are more critical of mental health issues… expected to be tough and hard-nosed. Also, why would you go into this profession which is so well known to be hugely stressful if you have [mental health] problems… therefore made to feel it’s my own fault or in some way weak.”
In its report, LawCare concludes that the culture in the law profession needs to change, starting with its working practices: “It’s time for legal workplaces to accept that long hours, heavy workloads, poor work-life balance and the lack of effective supervision is undermining wellbeing. The digital transformation that most legal workplaces have gone through during the pandemic provides a foundation for the human transformation that is now needed. To achieve this human transformation we need a sector-wide commitment to why wellbeing matters and to start redefining the culture in law in the positive, to what it could be: a workplace where people have a positive work-life balance, feel valued, respected and supported and thrive.
“We also need to look at the system; we need a legal ecosystem that supports organisations and individuals to develop and maintain healthy working lives.”