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Are mental health issues unmentionable at law firms?

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Best to stick to how much billable work you’ve done/will do at workplace catch ups?

How many of us would be brave enough to raise a mental health issue to our employer/manager during a supervision meeting? At a “typical commercial law firm” I certainly would not, due to that old-fashioned workplace fear factor.

My anticipated reaction would be a stunned and hasty response along the lines of “I am sorry to hear that, do you know about our mental health help line for employees?” followed by a complete shattering of my reputation for competence at work (I’m flattering myself by assuming I have one) followed by drawn out awkwardness and anticipation of me disappearing off on extended sick leave which I would probably take if not out of genuine need, through embarrassment. That’s a worst case and exaggerated scenario, but not entirely improbable.

Up half the night but keep calm and carry on – is this the culture of expectation at law firms?

Do I have the correct attitude? Absolutely not, but Mind say there is a culture of fear and silence regarding mental health at work which is costly to employers. At law firms, the stigma concerning mental health is worse – lawyers are not supposed to be vulnerable.

Are lawyers immune to mental health issues?

We may think we need to keep our personal ups and downs in check to succeed but every week 1 in 6 of us experience a mental health problem such as anxiety and depression. And in a high pressure/expectation environment that statistic increases – 96% of lawyers report they have experienced negative stress at work – a major cause of mental health issues.  Also see solicitor Karen Jackson’s insightful post on stress and the legal profession.

Mental health issues at work are not confined to the better known examples of depression and stress. Eating disorders, anxiety, insomnia, substance and alcohol abuse, obsessive compulsive disorders  may affect a significant proportion of the workforce at a law firm.

How many of us can honestly say that we haven’t been affected by one or more of these mental health issues during our working lives?

How do employers support employees with mental health issues? 

This isn’t just about how we can we be a nicer and better employer – the result of a “no room for weakness” culture is sick leave, a reluctance to discuss mental health friendly working practises, and ultimately a less productive workplace that will lose good employees.

The best known support offered by employers is an external employee help line and some wording in the staff handbook along the lines of “don’t suffer in silence – speak to your manager if you have a mental health issue that is affecting you”. Surely this isn’t enough?

Why should law firms be very concerned about mental health?

Is more natural light at work  beneficial?

Are we as humans built to spend many hours rooted to  a computer screen worrying constantly about being sued/sacked if we miss a deadline/get the law wrong? Put this way, the law is not a “mental health friendly” profession and if we take an honest look at what solicitors do and how they do it, it’s not surprising that solicitors have not evolved to handle this pressure day in day out, and they often do not cope.

And let’s not restrict this to solicitors. Where we have solicitors under pressure, other staff around them also soak up the pressure including their secretaries, managers and other support staff.

What changes are need to make a law firm “mental health friendly”?

In my vision of a mental health friendly law firm, it would be great to see coping strategies that are not farmed out to external specialist organisations or buried in a staff handbook, and greater confidence that mental health issues can be dealt with by managers with competence.  Mind have plenty of information on how employers can build a “mental health friendly” working environment.

nap rooms/energy pods at work could help employees cope with stress
Nap rooms/energy pods at work could help employees cope with stress

With a crushing culture of daily targets and quality expectations it’s much harder to speak up about what could be perceived to be a “weakness” or “concern”. Few employees will believe a reassurance that they can speak to their manager about mental health issues without visible and openly discussed changes along the lines of flexible working hours, the ability to work core hours from home, break-out/quiet rooms, training for managers on supporting staff with mental health issues, and return to work policies for employees that have taken time off for mental health issues.

Only then can employees be confident that mental health issues should not be hidden away and they will not affect work performance appraisals. Especially if these reassurances are delivered not by HR, but by the Managing Partner him or herself in person to all staff. I’d like to see that!

Thanks for reading. Please review the very interesting and relevant comments below, and add your own.

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6 thoughts on “Are mental health issues unmentionable at law firms?

  • May 20, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Hi, Ben (if I may)

    As CEO of a small law firm, I very much hope that everyone is able to speak to me or my practice manager about these and other sensitive issues. I accept, though, that mental health is a major issue for the profession as the academic research has revealed — mostly in Australia and the United States. I think the profession has to do a lot more (…and understatement if ever there was one) to address the cultural barriers. Let us hope that a few more leaders/Senior Partners are willing to share their experiences, and not just after they retire. Work in progress for sure.


    • May 20, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      Thanks Julian for your very constructive and positive comment. Agreed re other partners/managers sharing their experiences – let’s hope they think the same way as you!

  • May 21, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    My experience of working for a larger firm and struggling with such issues was that their only response was to speak to my GP and ring the EAP provider. Although my field was not employment law, I was left with the impression that provided they had followed Hatton v Sutherland and had an external provider, that was as far as their concern went. My experience of the EAP provider was that it was a sticking plaster response at best. The general response seems to be along the lines of ” if you can’t stand the heat…”. Well ai got out of the kitchen after 28 years…

    • May 22, 2016 at 4:11 am

      Unbelievable Karen. Thanks for sharing that, and I hope you never looked back from making that call!

  • PaulW
    May 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Hi Karen, Sorry to hear of your experience. You are correct that the response is at best a sticking plaster. I have noted that the question of stress induced mental health is one that needs to be addressed at the very core of practices if they are to have a positive culture. When the work involved requires clarity of thought, sharpness of mind and ability to deal with clients who are themselves stressed it is frustrating that this issue is not given its proper priority by management. The culture needs to change – the problem is trying to get management to accept unacceptable behaviours as often being the underlying causes of mental health issues.

  • April 7, 2017 at 11:27 am

    I’m researching stress issues for lawyers, with a view to trialling a bespoke stress management course based on mindfulness approaches. If anyone would be able to contribute to my understanding of issues and experience of stress at work, or who would be willing to trial the programme, please get in touch with me :


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