Studies have shown a correlation between easing of lockdown measures and improvement in wellbeing. However, detrimental health consequences will still persist, particularly those associated with unchanging aspects of the legal profession, writes Amelia Schubach.
In a survey of 440 lawyers working in Australia, conducted and distributed online between 8-19 September 2021, 3.82 was the average mental wellbeing rating out of 10 in mid-September 2021. This is down from 5.25 in May last year.
A staggering 93 per cent have been struggling to focus more so than usual, up from 73 per cent last year. Sixty-three per cent are experiencing disrupted sleep, and general productivity is, on average, at 40 per cent of usual levels.
Unlike our experience of lockdown last year, the novelty has worn off; and much of the world has moved on. We might be better equipped to work from home, having mastered Microsoft Teams and purchased the game-changing second screen, but somehow, this time is harder.
Maintaining boundaries between work and non-work life is the biggest challenge, with 71 per cent of respondents identifying this to be one of their two biggest challenges during the aforementioned period.
Both pressures intrinsic to the legal profession and the COVID-19-induced working circumstances have blurred the temporal, spatial and psychological separation between work and non-work life, generating prolonged periods of stress with little or no reprieve. This has an insidious effect on our cognitive abilities and bodies, and this is the “shadow pandemic” many have been experiencing.
Pressures of the legal profession, chronic stress and cognitive function
The majority of the legal profession still operates on a time billing basis. If it is possible to do more billable work, lawyers are incentivised, by bonuses or progression opportunities, to do so. Low utilisation is captured on timesheets which breeds guilt for low productivity and feeds a need to compensate.
The propensity for this phenomenon is greater now, particularly as unadjusted billable KPIs are maintained despite additional challenges such as homeschooling, social isolation, and suboptimal working arrangements.
The client-centric nature of our profession has a compounding effect. Since success hinges on client satisfaction and outcomes, client expectations drive our working hours, facilitated by technology.
Anecdotally, clients have been making more frequent contact on weekends, predicated on the assumption that “there’s little else to do” and because they themselves are in lockdown. Data reflecting the impact of COVID-19 on the working hours of lawyers in Australia specifically is not available.
However, industry-agnostic, global trends broadly confirm this. A Harvard study of three million “knowledge workers”, including lawyers, found the average workday had increased by 48.5 minutes after the pandemic first hit.
The aggregation of these factors makes it difficult to maintain temporal separation between work and non-work life and to take proper breaks. Prolonged stress results in the overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol, and whilst usually, the brain is constantly making new brain cells at a low level, high levels of cortisol hinder this process. A consequence is impaired neuroplasticity, which in itself has been linked to depression. Chronic stress also causes the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus to shrink, compromising our executive and memory engines, respectively.
As lawyers, we solve complex problems often on a “time is of the essence” basis. Our profession is well known for its high rates of depression and anxiety. With the highly stressful overlay of lockdown, coupled with the anxiety-inducing nature of our jobs, it is unsurprising that 63 per cent of participants are struggling with sleep more so than usual, up from 43 per cent last year. This pattern of disrupted sleep during the pandemic is reflected in other countries too.
No doubt other factors, such as lack of sufficient physical activity and limited exposure to natural light, are also at play. Just one night of sleep loss makes us 30 per cent more anxious, but prolonged periods of poor sleep can re-route the brain’s motivation-regulating region to connect to the panic response instead of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for problem-solving. Naturally, it makes our jobs as lawyers particularly challenging.
Continuous WFH: a breeding ground for distraction
The constricted life-space imposed by COVID-19 renders spatial separation very difficult. Whilst 78 per cent may have a dedicated workspace, these workspaces are still firmly embedded in our non-working lives at home, and the overlap psychologically puts us in a state of perpetual immersive multitasking.
In order to actively focus on work, we need to disregard deeply ingrained environmental cues to rest at home and heavily engage our control systems. Unlike doing this for short periods of time, the sustained mental effort generates a higher level of baseline physiological activity which becomes harder to maintain and tolerate over time. This is evidenced in the substantial increase in respondents struggling to focus from 73 per cent last year to 93 per cent this year.
Moreover, without regular social interactions stimulating complex neurological processes, our brains have spare cognitive capacity, lending itself to distractions. In lockdown, competing priorities, such as caregiving duties, are more pressing. Absent the accountability of colleagues in visible proximity, there’s greater scope for complacency without immediate ramifications or judgment.
On average, respondents’ productivity was at 40 per cent of usual levels, with phone usage being the number one cause of distraction. Distractions self-evidently compromise focus due to their disruptive nature.
However, from a neurological perspective, they are also a form of task-switching, which in turn consumes oxygen the brain would otherwise deploy to maintain focus. Indeed, independent studies have found that task-switching can cost as much as 40 per cent of one’s productivity.
The way forward
Many of these challenges are circumstantial and may diminish as we re-emerge from harsh social restrictions. Certainly, studies have shown a correlation between easing of lockdown measures and improvement in wellbeing. However, detrimental health consequences will still persist, particularly those associated with unchanging aspects of the legal profession.
Even after 19 months’ coverage of the mental health impact of COVID-19, 54 per cent of respondents feel they cannot talk to someone at their workplace about their mental health. One in two do not feel their workplace is providing enough mental health support, despite 75 per cent of respondents having access to an Employee Assistance Program and workplaces offering time off and mental health education.
This means that more needs to be done.
We must continue honest and constructive coverage of lawyer wellbeing to move beyond its current stigma. Education around neuropsychology and tailored support structures are also vital to protect and enhance mental health.
As the status quo demonstrates, the legal profession has a long way to go, but with the right data, leadership and accountability, we can and we will be a stronger, better-equipped profession post-pandemic.
Amelia Schubach is a growth and strategy executive at Halo Group, the holding company for Hamilton Locke.