Kate Carnell (pictured) said the number one cost of depression and anxiety is presenteeism, not absenteeism, and that timesheets could be adding to the problem.
“[Lawyers] are doing lots of six minute-ers but the actual outcomes aren’t all that good,” said Carnell.
Presenteeism is defined as the lost productivity that occurs when employees come to work but, as a consequence of illness or other conditions, are not fully functioning.
A 2008 Medibank report estimated that stress-related presenteeism directly costs employers $6.63 billion a year, compared to stress-related absenteeism, which costs them $3.48 billion annually.
Excessive hours have become an ethos in the legal profession, said Carnell.
The people who are there until 10pm are those seen to be ‘going places’ in the firm, but Carnell said there’s a good chance “all they are is incredibly inefficient and not very productive.”
“Looking at [timesheets] and having discussions in the workplace about what’s a reasonable amount of time to be spending on particular clients’ work [is crucial], rather than just doing blocks of six minutes, whether they’re productive six minutes or not.”
A 2009 joint study by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation and the Brain & Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney found 46.9 per cent of law students, 55.7 per cent of solicitors and 52.5 per cent of barristers had experienced depression; significantly higher rates than any other professions.
Many of the risk factors for depression and anxiety are inherent in the law: long working hours, pressure to perform, competitiveness among lawyers and an adversarial environment.
“Lawyers are trained to see [and focus] on the problems and the things that can go wrong. In any particular transaction, they’re not exactly trying to be optimistic,” said Carnell, adding that there’s a huge amount of pressure to perform, but without a whole lot of decision-making latitude around which clients lawyers can act for.
Matthew Stutsel, a former Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) partner and the current head of tax at KPMG, challenged lawyers to think about the choices they face each day within an ethical framework.
“Are we doing the best thing by our clients, flogging ourselves every night?” he asked young lawyers at a NSW Law Society event last month.
Stutsel has the benefit of experience: his struggle with depression led to a suicide attempt in 2005.
He recalls leaving the office at 9pm, and often the next morning, during his 17 years at HSF.
Carnell described these hours as “absolutely unacceptable”.
“If you’ve got someone in the workplace who’s there at 11pm every night and in at seven, it’s inherent upon leaders to say ‘no, you can’t keep doing it’,” she said.
“They need to sleep, they need to get regular exercise, they need to eat regularly, and they need to see their families. That’s what produces a well-balanced lifestyle.”
It’s also what allows lawyers to concentrate, manage deadlines and act in the best interests of their clients.
Missing dinner at home due to excessive working hours; letting a sporting team down, and not seeing kids and partners is a “dreadful way to live. You’re forever feeling guilty and your health and your relationships start to suffer,” said Carnell.
Lawyers are also significantly more likely than other professionals to use alcohol and other drugs to reduce and manage their symptoms of depression and sadness, according to a 2007 joint study by Beaton Research Consulting and BeyondBlue.
“When you think about it, the legal culture does have lots of alcohol: lunches, drinks after work,” said Carnell.
A number of senior lawyers, and barristers Paul Menzies QC and Greg Barns, have spoken openly about their depression, but others still feel they cannot.
A second Beaton and BeyondBlue survey in 2011 found that significantly more lawyers, compared to other professionals, believe their organisation would react negatively to someone experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder within the workplace.
Despite large firm efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues through projects like [email protected], Lawyers Weekly recently received another anonymous article from a graduate lawyer in a big firm suffering extreme feelings of anxiety.
“It’s really important for senior managers to make it clear that the organisation encourages people to get help and to take time off to get their health back and to do that early,” said Carnell.
A DVD entitled Managing depression and related disorders in the legal profession is available through BeyondBlue workplace-training and features personal stories from a number of barristers and senior lawyers.
These workplace-training sessions can help firms train staff to better understand mental health issues and support colleagues who might be suffering.
“There’s not an excuse to do nothing,” said Carnell, adding that lawyers don’t have to be professionals to help someone.
“It’s not just saying ‘are you okay?’ because people will often say ‘yep’. You just need to say ‘hey you don’t seem to be your normal self, you seem to be doing it a bit tough’.
“Just care, and give people an opportunity to talk about it.”