Lawyers fear voicing mental health concerns as workplace stress erodes wellbeing, global study finds

IBA says report is 'call to action' as high-performing lawyers battle to reconcile sense of purpose with permanent pressure and fear of failure

A worryingly high proportion of legal professionals across the world would not speak out about their mental wellbeing for fear of the consequences, according to a major study by the International Bar Association (IBA).

And while the survey of more than 3,000 professionals identified high levels of stress and anxiety across all demographics, it found certain groups to be particularly vulnerable, with respondents with a disability and those in the 23-29 age bracket worst affected.

The report, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, found that more than two in five (41%) respondents would not discuss their mental health with their employer. Just less than a third (32%) said this was due to concerns they would be treated differently if they spoke out, 24% felt their employer doesn’t sufficiently recognise mental wellbeing issues and 17% said that they feared not being believed or taken seriously.

Such feelings are perhaps justified considering that while the vast majority (82%) of the organisations surveyed, which included law firms, in-house legal departments, law societies and bar associations, said they take mental wellbeing seriously, only 16% provide training for senior management.

The report comes at a time of increasing concern around mental health issues in the legal profession, particularly given the huge shifts in working life brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of reports have found lawyers suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety and that seems to be borne out by the IBA’s research, with a third of respondents saying their work has a negative or extremely negative impact on their wellbeing.

For solutions to be implemented there must first be acknowledgement that mental wellbeing matters and that it does not denote weakness.

What’s more, this impact seems to be disproportionate, with some demographics more affected than others. The report used the World Health Organisation’s mental wellbeing scale, in which a score for an individual below 52% is an indicator for a health professional to screen for depression and suggests a more formal assessment of mental wellbeing problems is warranted.

The average overall score of respondents to the IBA survey of individuals was a concerning 51%, though men and those in the 55-59 age category fared better, scoring 56% and 59% respectively. Women and those who identified as being from an ethnic minority scored only 47%, and the worst affected were those with a disability (45%) and in the 23-29 age bracket (43%).

The research was commissioned by a taskforce led by Steven Richman, a Princeton-based member at top 200 US firm Clark Hill, and Deborah Enix-Ross, a senior dispute resolution adviser in Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York office.

In the joint statement, they said: ‘It is our hope that the mental wellbeing principles set out in the report will aid the legal profession in urgently responding to the crisis. For solutions to be implemented there must first be acknowledgement that mental wellbeing matters and that it does not denote weakness. The report is a call to action. It is our hope and intention that it will be used around the world to further the work of implementing practical solutions to what is a global crisis.'

A number of lawyers featured in the report commented on the conflicted nature of the profession, with a Swiss attorney saying that while it ‘fulfils me with purpose and a sense of achievement, the permanent pressure, fear of failure and constant battle between my work and private life is extremely stressful and has a negative impact on my mental wellbeing’.

The excitement...burdens me with anxiety

A lawyer in Mexico, meanwhile, commented that ‘the legal challenges offer a never ending source of intellectual excitement. However, the excitement at the same time burdens me with anxiety about delivering quick and efficient solutions for our clients.’

Factors relating to time pressures were most commonly perceived as having a negative impact on lawyers’ mental wellbeing, but bullying and harassment appeared to have the most detrimental effect. Self-employed legal professionals were also particularly affected by lack of support and uncertainty.

More than a quarter of respondents (28%) want to see a workplace culture improved to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and address poor behaviour. The report sets out a number of wellbeing principles for the legal profession, including the need for organisations to adopt a dedicated policy and foster open dialogue around the issue. It also emphasises that the nature and cause of difficulties experienced by specific groups, including younger, female and ethnic minority legal professionals, must be understood and tackled, as well as that good practice must be shared across the profession to create a wider cultural shift.  

The IBA’s report was based on data from roughly 3,250 surveyed legal professionals and 186 legal organisations across 124 jurisdictions.

Email your news and story ideas to: [email protected]