Stress and the legal profession

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Karen Jackson discusses how stress affects the mind and body and considers ways for law firms to manage the issue.

Hand squeezing stress ball

Stress in the workplace

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. It isn't big or clever to be stressed or busy all the time, but our culture seems to view being overwhelmed as a badge of honour. It carries kudos. Pulling an all-nighter is applauded and, in some large firms, actively encouraged. It is perceived as a macho way to work and it is nonsensical. This is the core of the stress problem in law firms. 

Stress and mental ill-health are now the top reasons for long-term sickness. They rank above cancer, strokes, heart attacks and musculoskeletal injuries - as this CIPD report on absence management (PDF) emphasises. Work is the also the number one cause of stress in the UK, according to the Samaritans. Britain's workplace is stressed out and something needs to be done to address it. If you've ever worked for a workaholic boss, you will know exactly what I mean. That moment when you want to go home because your brain is done for the day but it's not yet 6pm and you daren't. Or you do dare but leave your coat on the back of your chair so that it looks like you are still there.

In the workplace, the source of pressure can be anything: too many conflicting demands; too little time; unreasonable targets; a demanding and unreasonable boss; bullying; a lack of support - the list goes on. The HSE guidance on tacking work-related stress is clear about the Management Standards approach that employers should adopt through assessing workplace risks to health. Research has identified six aspects of work which can have a negative impact on employee health and lead to stress. They are: demands, control, support, role, change, and relationships.

The work has been done to find out the why of workplace stress. What needs to be done is more work on the how to prevent it and assistance for workers in addressing it in a healthy and positive manner, before they are off sick long-term and lost to the labour market.

How does stress affect us?

We all think we know stress and its effects, but do we really appreciate the full extent of the damage? Quite aside from the very damaging mental health issues stress causes, there are also a range of other health effects, including heart problems and blood pressure issues (which can cause stroke - heard the one about the fit, healthy and lean solicitor who keels over and dies in his fifties? That would be from stress).

Excessive levels of cortisol in the blood, which follows on from over-stimulation of the fight or flight response for a prolonged period, is one of the reasons overworked solicitors cannot sleep at night and are, therefore, unrefreshed in the morning. They also cause build-up of fat around the waist which, in itself, is a health red flag linked to diabetes and other long-term conditions. I have seen thirty-year-old solicitors with unbelievably high blood pressure and stroke risk. We also know the dangers of adrenaline, which are linked to addiction. There is a reason substance abuse is high in the legal profession and not just around alcohol.

What can firms do to manage stress better?

A good employer can, and should, pay attention to the risks and should, at the very least, assess that risk. How many employers ask employees in their annual appraisal process how stressed they are? It's a tricky issue but one that is not going away any time soon and one which good employers are taking notice of. The only way forward is prevention and support. Controlling and limiting, or even tracking, working hours would be a start too!

A 2012 survey of the law profession by LawCare revealed that more than 50 per cent of the profession felt stressed and that 19 per cent were suffering from clinical depression. That is one fifth of the profession suffering from (mostly) avoidable and preventable mental ill health. Employers can also do more to help people who manage long-term mental health conditions, which are perfectly manageable and do not cause increased absence from work. Now and then I do hear encouraging stories of employers doing the right thing in this arena. But they are still too few and far between.

In 2013, the Law Society interviewed 2,226 solicitors about stress at work and, shockingly, more than 95 per cent said their stress was extreme or severe. Worryingly, in 2014, 36 per cent of stressed-out calls to LawCare were from solicitors below five PQE, indicating that the future of the profession is already stressed before reaching the higher echelons. That is not much of a succession plan.

Of course, a complication of stress-related illness is that there is stigma attached to it, which prevents many people seeking the kind of help they need before the issue becomes serious. Lots of awareness campaigns are underway (Time to Change, Black Dog, See Me (Scotland), and of course Mental Health Awareness Week), but I do not see the results of the anti-stigma campaigns translating into improvements on the ground. Perhaps it is too early to tell but Didlaw, which specialises in disability discrimination around mental health and work-related stress claims, is busier than ever.

I feel that the profession is lagging behind modern ways to work. Many solicitors still do not have the freedom to work from home or remotely: why is that? Most of our work requires us to spend (long) hours in front of a computer or on the telephone. The work lends itself perfectly to flexible working and yet most firms will only make a nod to flexibility, offering maybe one day a week at home. Letting solicitors be grown-ups who manage themselves, their workloads, their output and their deadlines might be a head start to promoting an environment of trust where everyone can flourish.

Curiously, many of the most inherently stressful jobs are the ones with the lowest levels of reported stress: the Fire Service, ambulance workers, A&E staff in hospitals. Is it because it is acknowledged that stress is part of the job and, therefore, that it is OK to say you are stressed and talk about it? I have to think it is. So, the sooner solicitors feel that they can openly vent about stress and get it out there, the healthier the profession will be.

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