A major survey on wellbeing in the profession has found that 69% of respondents had experienced mental ill-health (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) in the previous 12 months.
The most common mental symptoms, experienced often to all the time, were anxiety (61% of respondents), low mood (48%) and depression (29%).
Some 29% said that they had experienced physical symptoms arising from work-related stress in the previous 12 months, with 22% feeling unable to cope and 6% reporting regular suicidal thoughts.
But only 56% of those who had experienced mental ill-health talked about it at work, primarily due to the fear of stigma.
The Life in the Law survey conducted by mental health charity LawCare – to which 1,713 legal professionals responded – also reported that 22% said they had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the year before completing the survey.
It said the many initiatives introduced over the past two decades to tackle bullying and harassment “have had little significant impact”.
The research highlighted the intensity of work many faced: almost two-thirds felt they needed to check emails outside of regular work hours to keep up with their workload and 28% said their work required them to be available to clients 24/7.
The survey was open between October 2020 and January 2021 to anyone working in the law in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Most participants (60%) came from the solicitors’ profession.
Women, those from an ethnic minority group and disabled professions averaged higher in burnout than their obverse groups, and also reported having lower autonomy and lower ‘psychological safety’ at work. A psychologically safe workplace is one where workers believe they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up.
The research identified a “notable disparity” between the widespread provision of various wellbeing measures by employers – such as mental health policies and training – and their perceived helpfulness. Regular catch-ups or appraisals were seen as the best measure used by many employers.
Fewer than half of managers or supervisors said they had received training to take up their roles; almost all of those who had been trained said it was helpful.
LawCare said the “organisational culture” of the legal profession needed to change to tackle these problems.
“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 report said.
“The digital transformation that most legal workplaces have gone through during the pandemic provides a foundation for the human transformation that is now needed.”