Support for Lawyers

There’s a Wellbeing Policy!

wellbeing

Many law firms and organisations where lawyers work have adopted a wellbeing policy.

Since the legal profession’s wellbeing has been maintaining the status quo for over three decades (globally), it appears that wellbeing policies merely create an intention without action.

According to the International Bar Association’s (IBA) 2021 report on the legal profession’s wellbeing, most legal workplaces reported they had wellbeing initiatives. However, most employees reported these initiatives were ineffective. Employees thought organisations undertook wellbeing initiatives, such as wellbeing policies, to “tick” the wellbeing box as there were few systems in place to ensure the policies were being actioned. This is precisely the lip service the Honourable Chief Justice Anne Ferguson warned of in her keynote at the 2024 Wellness for Lawyers Forum hosted by Melbourne and Monash Universities.

If having a wellbeing policy doesn’t work, what does?

Firms can keep their wellbeing policies for guidance – they are still a part of the complex tapestry of approaches needed to address lawyers’ wellbeing. Action is needed to add some strength to wellbeing policies. As we all know, policies of any kind are living documents; if we don’t “live” our policies then they are ineffectual.

The IBA report found that of the firms and organisations that had a wellbeing policy 39% had senior management implementing the policy, 16% had senior managers with training in mental health and wellbeing and 54% had no training. Further, only a third of organisations provided funding for wellbeing initiatives, with most of the funding allocated to pay for employee assistance programs.

Again, there are indicators of lip service in these findings. It appears organisations had a lukewarm approach at best to implementing wellbeing policies and that senior management are woefully ignorant of mental health and wellbeing generally. The particularly telling finding is that most organisations place such a low priority on wellbeing that they do not even fund it. It is, therefore, understandable that employees perceive that organisations could do much more to support their wellbeing.

The report on the Canadian legal profession’s mental health and wellbeing by Cadieux et al. highlights organisational risk factors to wellbeing as a central contributor to lawyers’ illbeing. It found that organisational risk factors had a greater impact on mental health than resources. This suggests that reducing the risk factors is perhaps more important than offering staff extra supports. Organisational risk factors include emotional demands, job insecurity, work overload and hours worked, all of which were found to be most harmful to lawyers’ health. These factors were linked to higher levels of perceived stress, psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and burnout. The findings emphasise the crucial role firms and organisations play in effectively addressing lawyers’ wellbeing.

Both the IBA report and the 2019 report by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner agree with the Canadian research. These reports found that key negative impacts of legal work are workload, intense time demands and high pressure. Further organisational contributors were mentioned, including poor work-life balance, hyper-competitive environment, and excessive focus on money. Cadieux et al. highlight the billable hour business model as a key organisational barrier to wellbeing in the legal profession (see the scourge of the billable hour). Thus, research suggests a number of organisational areas that firms and organisations can review and change to enhance lawyers’ wellbeing.

In fact, the research is (yet again) inviting the profession to examine how it works and note practices that undermine mental health and wellbeing of staff. It may seem like a big task. But do not be discouraged, with the appropriate guidance and understanding leaders can action a course towards wellbeing.

Support for lawyers understands legal professionals. Our professionals can help leaders in legal organisations with practical approaches to explore how your organisation may or may not support mental health and wellbeing. Support is not just for employees – leaders benefit too.

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.

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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

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

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