The report released last month by the International Bar Association (IBA), shows mental health issues are particularly prevalent in the legal profession and that many employers are not equipped with the skillset to proactively support individuals.

The report titled: Mental Wellbeing in the legal profession: a global study, did over 3200 surveys from around the world in law firms, bar associations and in-house legal departments. The overall findings paint a sobering picture. Despite increased awareness of mental health impacts within the profession, there remains significant work to be done to improve mental wellbeing within the profession.

Researchers used a World Health Organisation index which measured various factors to form a score out of 100 per cent, under which an individual who scores below 52 per cent is likely to need a formal assessment of their wellness concerns.

Demographic Discrepancies

There was an overall average score of 51 per cent, meaning the average individual who was surveyed is likely to need a formal assessment of their wellness. However, there were also noticeable differences in scores depending on certain factors. While men scored on average around 56 per cent, women only scored around 47 per cent. There were also clear discrepancies in age, with those aged 25-29 ranking on average at 43 per cent while those aged 60+ ranked at 64 per cent. Ethnic minorities also scored on average 47 per cent compared to their counterparts at 51 per cent.

The most commonly cited negative factors were stress, intense time demands, poor work life balance and high pressure. The positive factors were cited to be a sense of purpose, interesting work and connecting with others.

Room for improvement for employers

The report has revealed that despite increased awareness of mental health issues, many employees do not feel like they can have these discussions with their employer. When surveyed, 41 per cent cited a fear for potential impact on their career, including 32 per cent who indicated a fear of differential treatment, were they to raise such concerns.

These fears can be viewed in the wake of findings that while three quarters of workplaces had wellbeing initiatives in place, a third were actually providing funding and only 16 per cent said that all senior management had been given specific training on mental wellbeing.

Employers have a significant role to play in this discussion. Those who scored higher than the average for mental wellbeing indicated that their organisation had responded effectively to issues they had raised. However, where individuals indicated their firm or organisation did not respond effectively, levels of individual mental wellbeing were lower than average.

Not addressing mental health concerns can have significant impacts on the employer too as 46 per cent of respondents had considered taking time off, 26 per cent made a mistake and 32 per cent felt unable to perform due to mental health issues.

Reflection/Future Challenges

Covid-19 has increased the levels of awareness of mental wellbeing among firms. When those surveyed were asked what lessons the industry should learn from the pandemic, the top responses were more flexible working practices (more work from home, better work-life balance) and more of a wellbeing focus.

The IBA concluded by stating there is the: “unprecedented opportunity that we have as a profession to focus on mental wellbeing in the post-Covid era, as well as the enormous groundswell of support and interest in this subject that is emerging worldwide. The challenge now is to continue building on this work in order to build the supportive, inclusive, and well-led profession that we all want to be part of.”

The IBA report set out 10 principles for both institutions and individuals to better combat wellness issues in the legal profession, prioritising the need for good policies and training to help combat negative mental health.

On 27 October, our Practice Manager Justice Fletcher attended an ALPMA Seminar titled: Leading Wellbeing in the Legal Profession. This session focused on equipping leaders with the tools to develop a workplace framework to create a mentally healthy team have the skillset to proactively support and assist it.

Justine said she found the session: “very informative … with shocking statistics on mental wellbeing in the legal industry and how mental illness is now the number one cause of personal leave in Australia”

The key takeaway from this is to ensure all employers are equipped to proactively support those struggling with mental health and for individuals to know how to look after yourself and don’t be afraid to speak up if you need help.