The crisis in wellbeing in the legal industry has received increased attention in the media recently with SafeWork NSW and WorkSafe in Vic investigating allegations of unsafe work practices in two top tier legal firms.
With 12-hour days and 6-day weeks viewed as standard, and some teams clocking up weeks of 15 hours days and on occasion sleeping at work, it is not surprising that 1 in 3 lawyers at any one time are struggling with depression. It’s a picture that Audrey McGibbon, psychologist, wellbeing researcher and co-founder of the GLWS (Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey) says has become even more chronic in a post GFC and post Royal Commission into Banking era.
‘Successful lawyers have always had to contend with high levels of stress, but the ‘new norm’ has catapulted the toll on their wellbeing into stratospheric levels. Lawyers who were only just coping previously are now perilously imbalanced’.
Director of Henry William Lawyers and employment and workplace law specialist Lisa Berton views the crisis in lawyer’s wellbeing as symptomatic of the entire legal system
‘If we are going to see a genuine shift in the industry, the whole legal system needs to change. The issue in the legal industry is systemic, excessive and intense workloads permeate throughout the system – judicial members, barristers, senior and junior lawyers.’
At the top tier law firms,dinner and cab fares are offered as a well-intended but ineffective band aid to the physical, mental and social impacts of working these hours. Another common response heard from managing and senior partners to accusations of overworking staff is ‘well we pay our lawyers at the top end of the market’ and that ‘people coming to work for us are aware of the demands of the role’.
In other words, ‘people who want to work for us are agreeing to compromise their wellbeing in exchange for a big salary’. They are frowned upon or viewed as ‘not having what it takes’ for complaining about what they signed up for. It is no wonder that 83% of those who are depressed suffer in silence for fear of losing their jobs or being passed over for promotion.
The question has to be asked, why go to all that trouble and expense to attract the best of the best, and then expose them to a work environment that risks destroying them?
Admittedly a 9 to 5 work routine is never going to fit the complexity and time sensitive nature of much of the top tier law firm’s work. And yes, there are going to be circumstances where workloads require ridiculous hours. However, there are proven ways to both meet these obligations and support the wellbeing of the people fulfilling them.
The business case for encouraging wellbeing in the workplace has been well and truly made. On every measure be it productivity, accuracy, creativity, market and business development, or key staff retention, organisations that prioritise and support employee wellbeing and healthy work practices outperform those that don’t.
In no other sector is it more important for senior leaders to genuinely model and encourage healthy work practices. Law firms have an entrenched hierarchical structure and it is the rare associate who would feel comfortable engaging in self-care without the support of their leaders.
Ideally during periods of heavy workloads managers and leaders need to both visibly model and overtly encourage healthy work practices. They should regularly check in with their team and ask questions such as ‘when was the last time you got up from your desk and had a break, when was the last time you ate or exercised, have you managed to have dinner with your family in the last week, are you feeling overwhelmed or stressed right now, and if so here are some strategies that helped me. I know you have just worked 10 days straight – how about having the next couple of days off ’.
These are simple prompts from senior leaders that communicate genuine care and acknowledge that their employees are human beings rather than machines. There is no salary high enough to justify damage done to the wellbeing of not only the individual, but the colleagues and family around them, the organisation and society at large.
The last word goes to Audrey McGibbon,
‘It’s time for systemic change, the more enlightened and progressive law firms who are working to address these challenges by creating a culture of wellbeing that comes from the very top level of firms, where the leaders care about and engender healthy, sustainable and positive wellbeing practices – they’re the firms who will attract the ‘best and brightest’, the millennials are voting with their feet (50% turnover per annum is not unusual for a mid/early career lawyer), and they’re the ones who will be sustainably successful, the firms of the future’