Support for Lawyers

The “W” Word

Well Being

For lawyers’ “wellbeing” * is an uncomfortable word.

This became apparent to us recently at the Wellness for Lawyers Forum, hosted by the University of Melbourne and Monash University Law Schools and sponsored by the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner. (The Forum organisers and attendees obviously fully support wellbeing and use the word liberally.)

We had numerous conversations with legal academics, legal professionals and health professionals who work with the legal profession that suggested the word “wellbeing” is a turn off for legal professionals. Apparently, many in the legal profession consider “wellbeing” to be fluffy, insubstantial, and irrelevant. Perhaps this dismissive perception of an inherently positive word suggests something deeper is going on.

Words are powerful. They convey meaning and create context. They even create our reality.

“Wellbeing” is an excellent example of social usage changing the meaning of a word and creating a particular version of reality. According to the psychological literature, wellbeing means optional functioning.

What lawyer does not want to function optimally? So why are lawyers so dismissive of “wellbeing”?

Lawyers value winning, strength and persistence. They may perceive the discourse around lawyers’ wellbeing as highlighting vulnerability, an anathema to lawyers. Thus, “wellbeing” as perceived by lawyers may mean “weakness” or even “mental illness”. Consequently, it appears the perceived meaning is the opposite of the word’s actual meaning. This looks like the insidious work of stigma.

Stigma is a social phenomenon that acts to create categories and segregate groups. At its heart is stereotyping, separation and power. Thus, members of a group labelled weak are perceived as other, ostracised, isolated, shamed, dismissed, and ignored. Being a social phenomenon, stigma is perpetuated by words and can surround words – it shapes the very meaning we socially attribute to words.

The 2022 national Canadian study on health and wellbeing of legal professionals indicates the existence of stigma. It revealed that nearly one fifth of Canadian legal professionals believed people experiencing mental health issues are less capable to undertake legal work. People who experienced mental health issues were at least one third of all respondents (over 6000 people participated in the study) and reported they felt the impact of stigma. Over half of these legal professionals perceived they were lesser than their colleagues, 43.3% felt isolated and 17.3% perceived they were discriminated against within the profession. These results indicate that stigma is alive and well in the legal profession.

The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner report on the Victorian legal profession’s wellbeing confirms the widely held belief that mental ill-being and wellbeing are signs of weakness. The report revealed that a culture unsupportive of wellbeing exists in most legal professional settings. Practitioners expressed that they felt isolated and especially junior professionals, had to accept stressful and demanding working conditions to maintain their employment. This is a portrait of a profession that values power, is reticent to acknowledge mental health and wellbeing and, thus, stigmatises wellbeing.

The 2021 International Bar Association report on the wellbeing of the legal profession supports the “Courting the Blues” report finding fifteen years ago: mental health and wellbeing are not signs of weakness and are issues for the entire profession. As stigma is a socially created phenomenon, it must be addressed within the culture and systems of the legal profession.

One way the profession can address stigma is to fully embrace positive language. For example, mental health is about health and living full lives; wellbeing is optimal functioning in life. By using these words in positive contexts, such as profession-wide and organisational discourses, discussions and policies about supporting mental health and wellbeing, these concepts are deemed acceptable and safe to discuss.

How awesome is a mentally healthy workplace? (Aka, a workplace of engaged, productive people living full lives.)

Clients will flock to a law firm committed to wellbeing.  (Aka, a law firm committed to peak performance.)

Reclaiming language is a powerful way to advocate for change and shift culture. We encourage legal professionals to shift the way they engage with “wellbeing” and champion it as optimal legal practice and the viable way to undertake business.

Let us know…What does “mental health” and “wellbeing” mean to you and at your firm or organisation?

Support for Lawyers understands legal professionals. Our professionals can assist you or your legal organisation with practical approaches to deal with stigma, open up dialogue and normalise mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

At Support for Lawyers, we believe that when whole firms or organisations engage with us wellbeing is embraced as part of normal workplace culture and business as usual. This is responsible business practice and is protective of everyone.

Talk to us about how our preventative approach to enhance wellbeing can support you, your staff, and your legal organisation.

_____________________

*” wellbeing” refers to wellbeing and wellness

Brady, M. (2019). VLSB+C lawyer wellbeing project: Report on legal professionals’ reflections on wellbeing in the legal profession and suggestions for future reforms. Victorian Legal Services Board + Commission. https://lsbc.vic.gov.au/resources/lawyer-wellbeing-report

Burr, V. (1995). Introduction: What is social constructionism? In V. Burr (Ed.), An introduction to social constructionism (pp. 1-11). Routledge.

Cadieux, N., Cadieux, J., Gingues, M., Gouin, M.-M., Fournier, P.-L., Caya, O., Pomerleau, M.-L. Morin, E., Camille, A.B., & Gahunzire, J. (2022). Research report (final version): Towards a healthy and sustainable practice of law in Canada. National study on the health and wellness determinants of legal professionals in Canada, phase I (2020-2022). Université de Sherbrooke, Business School. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/365867261_Research_report_Final_version_Towards_a_Healthy_and_Sustainable_Practice_of_Law_in_CanadaNational_Study_on_the_Health_and_Wellness_Determinants_of_Legal_Professionals_in_Canada_Phase_I_2020-2022

International Bar Association. (2021). Mental wellbeing in the legal profession: A global study. International Bar Association. https://www.ibanet.org/document?id=IBA-report-Mental-Wellbeing-in-the-Legal-Profession-A-Global-Study

Kelk, M., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S., & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers. Brain and Mind Research Institute. https://law.uq.edu.au/files/32510/Courting-the-Blues.pdf

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 141-166. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141

World Health Organisation. (2022). Constitution. https://www.who.int/about/governance/constitution

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