New findings from the International Bar Association show that mental health issues disproportionately affect certain demographics within the legal profession and that a concerningly high number of such professionals fear speaking out.
The International Bar Association (IBA) has released a new report, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, which draws on data collected from nearly 3,500 surveyed legal professionals and more than 180 legal organisations, including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms.
The report unveiled that, despite profession-wide efforts to raise awareness of and implement measures to tackle psychological distress, anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and related issues amongst legal professionals, more than two in five (41 per cent) of survey respondents said they would not discuss their health concerns with their employer out of fear for detrimental consequences to their careers.
Among those who said they would not speak out, 32 per cent said they fear being treated differently as a result of such disclosure, 24 per cent said that their employers “do not sufficiently recognise” mental health concerns, and 17 per cent said they fear not being believed or taken seriously.
Such fears are perhaps justified in the wake of findings elsewhere in the report that while 82 per cent of institutions say that they take mental health concerns seriously, only 16 per cent actually provide training for senior management to tackle such concerns.
Among all individuals and institutions that participated in the survey, nearly three in 10 (28 per cent) said that they want to see improvements to workplace culture, particularly with regard to mutual respect among colleagues and stamping out poor behaviour.
Disproportionate impact upon certain demographics
The report also found troubling discrepancies in wellness levels between certain demographics of the legal profession. Researchers used a World Health Organisation scale to determine the quantum of individual health and wellbeing, under which an individual who scores below 52 per cent might need a screen for depression and is likely to need a formal assessment of their wellness concerns.
Using that scale, the researchers found that lawyers aged over 60 scored highest on the Wellbeing Index (64 per cent), followed by all men (56 per cent).
Other demographics surveyed fell under the benchmark for clinical concern; however – the average global score for lawyers was 51 per cent.
All women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds both came in at 47 per cent, followed by legal professionals with disabilities (45 per cent) and those aged between 23-29 (43 per cent).
Speaking about the findings, IBA president Sternford Moyo – a Zimbabwean lawyer – said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to evaluate what is most important in life and how our careers contribute, or not, to our mental wellbeing and sense of purpose.”
“This report could not be more timely or relevant,” he proclaimed.
“Raising awareness and open dialogue and communication are fundamental for change to occur. But this must not be where we stop. Regular assessments and well-devised and implemented policies are key.
“In a developing and demanding global culture where the delineation between work and other areas of life is increasingly blurred, this report demonstrates that we can, with the right tools and emphasis, recalibrate and find better balance. I commend this report and recommend it to anyone intent on being part of the solution to the mental wellbeing crisis in the legal profession.”
The IBA report also set out 10 principles for both institutions and individuals to better combat wellness issues in the legal profession, which Lawyers Weekly will report on in the coming days.