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LawCare research warns of high risk of burnout among legal professionals

Legal professionals are at high risk of burnout, mental ill-health and workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination, legal mental health charity LawCare has said.

It said it found 69% of professionals surveyed had experienced mental ill-health, and 20% had been bullied, harassed or discriminated.

Research study Life in the Law was carried out between October 2020 and January 2021 among more than 1,713 lawyers in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man.

They were questioned on work intensity, disengagement and exhaustion, the degree to which they could control how their work was done and on their ability to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns or admit mistakes.

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Among respondents 69% said they had experienced mental ill-health - whether clinically or self-diagnosed - in the preceding 12 months.

The most common experiences included anxiety, low mood and depression.

Only 56% of them said they had talked about this at work, with fear of stigma, career disadvantage and financial and reputational consequences the main reasons cited for not doing so.

Legal professionals were at a high risk of burnout, the research found, with those aged between 26 and 35 displaying the highest burnout scores, and also reporting the lowest autonomy, lowest psychological safety and highest work intensity score. Women, lawyers from ethnic minorities and those with a disability also scored higher than average for burnout and lower for autonomy and psychological safety at work.

Having a high workload and working long hours was associated with higher burnout, regardless of how much autonomy a person had, or how psychologically safe their work environment was.

There was pressure even outside work with 28% of participants saying their work required them to be available to clients 24 hours a day every day and 65% checking work emails outside of work hours.

Many legal professionals reported they had less than the recommended 7-9 hours a night of sleep, with 35% estimating this at 6-7 hours a night and 25% averaging 5-6 hours. There were 12% who slept fewer then five hours.

LawCare said that as the number of hours slept per night decreased, levels of burnout increased.

Covid-19 had added to concerns. While 88% of respondents were not furloughed and only 2% were made redundant because of the pandemic, almost half were worried about job security and 58% had become more concerned about their finances during the pandemic, while 59% reported being more concerned about increased pressures around work-life balance.

Bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work had been experienced by 22% of respondents, who also displayed higher burnout levels.

LawCare said the most commonly provided workplace support measures were regular catch-ups or appraisals, mental health policies, mental health and wellbeing training and signposting to external support.

Regular catch-ups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful as a means to bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety.

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said: “This research, the first of its kind in this country, provides robust evidence that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout and that those working practices in the law that undermine mental health need to change.

“We want this research to be the catalyst for us to come together as a profession to create that change, to create a culture in law that puts the law’s greatest asset - its people – first.”

Mark Smulian

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