WHILE THE issue of depression and stress has been taking centre stage in the legal industry over the past year, with many law firms implementing work practices in an effort to lessen the problem, the hurdle is a harder one than many firms and lawyers may realise, according to a Lawyers Weekly source.
An issue rarely mentioned in reports about depression and stress is the impact seeking treatment has on the ability to obtain income insurance, a source said last week in response to last week’s Lawyers Weekly article on the issue of depression in the legal industry. “I have been put through the mill for over 12 months now, seeking to increase my income insurance — like many lawyers, I have a mortgage and children and such insurance is important,” the source, a senior lawyer at a large law firm, said.
“The battle is continuing. I was initially declined cover completely because of a limited and event-specific history of depression. I offered to accept a depression-specific exclusion and after several months they came back with an exclusion so broad it is not worth paying for. I am not quite giving up, but almost.”
This lawyer, though she needed the support of counselling at the time, now questions whether seeking treatment was worth it. Having had to disclose extremely personal details to a range of “ever-revolving personnel” in insurance companies, none of which were relevant to or have ever affected her ability to work, she is tired of the process.
Lawyers are now encouraged in many firms to take out insurance as part of managing their own financial affairs and their careers. Often, firms take out this insurance on their lawyers’ behalf. This, said the Lawyers Weekly source, is a good thing: “We should cover ourselves so that we can take care of our families and financial matters if the worst happens and we are unable to work for an extended period.”
Depression is a vaguely defined term, commentators agree, but is now a priority of many HR departments in law firms, who encourage the firms to take it seriously.
Freehills director of Human Resources, Adele Brady, agrees that while depression may be a condition that the firm may not know about in every case, when it does know about it then the normal approach to illnesses would apply. This includes inquiring of the person involved: “‘What sort of treatment are you undertaking; is there anything that Freehills can do to support you in that; do you need more time off than you have actually taken; do we need to adapt your work situation in any way to either undertake treatment or modify your lifestyle to ensure you come to a full and speedy recovery’,” she said.
“We would be a little more intrusive around treatment of depression than any other illness — just to make sure that in addition to seeing their local doctor, they are having appropriate counselling. We do have an employer sponsored counselling service that is available to all of our employees.”
Freehills’ Brady said that it is important firms make sure employees suffering from depression have access to, and would access, appropriate counselling support.
Depression affects an increasing number of Australian employees, statistics now show. “We know that six million working days are lost every year to depression alone and we know that most people with depression don’t get treatment — particularly males, who are so busy running around and not taking time to monitor how they are travelling or changes in their colleagues,” said Nicole Highet, Deputy CEO of Beyond Blue: The National Depression Initiative.
The legal profession needs to get more information about depression, said Highet. “[We need to] get people to recognise how common it is. Of course, depression will affect one in five people at some point in their adult lifetime, so that is one in five people in any organisation and any one profession as well. The cost to the profession is very high.”
But because depression is such a vaguely defined term, the Lawyers Weekly source said, it covers a whole continuum and while some people are affected badly, some people are hardly affected at all. She argues that while we should encourage treatment and support each other in getting that treatment, there may be ramifications for someone’s ability to obtain income insurance “the minute you go to a GP or a psychologist or a psychiatrist, the minute there is any diagnosis which even mentions words like stress or depression or any of those general terms”.
“If you are an honest person you disclose that when you are asked to disclose it in the metal health questionnaire that you are now provided with your application for cover. I made the mistake in some ways of being honest about it and admitted that in 1997 I had been treated very briefly with postnatal depression and that in more recent times I had seen a psychologist because of events that had happened in my childhood that had caught up with me,” she said.
When the questionnaire required her to disclose whether she had seen a psychologist, “and the answer to that would be yes”, income insurance was completely declined because she had a history of mental health treatment.
As a result, she said, while you have sought support “to improve the way things are, to make your life better, you are being punished for it, and your children are potentially being punished for it in a financial sense”.
The insurance company refused to provide her with income insurance in the case of “any mental health condition whatsoever, including anything caused or contributed to by fatigue”.
“Fatigue had never been an issue in my life. The problem with that is that I could get hit by a car in the street they could say I wasn’t concentrating because I was fatigued.”
While law firms and depression support groups encourage people, particularly professionals, to think about whether they might have symptoms of depression, “people should be aware that this could have an impact [until the insurance industry catches up],” said our source.
“My personal view is that you should look after yourself, so seek help. But you should be aware that in doing so you are going to have to disclose it in the future. Forever — until the insurance industry comes to terms with a way of dealing with it,” she said.
Firms need to support lawyers more than they currently are, suggested our source. They should know that insurance companies will deal with this issue in a more realistic manner. “There must be some companies out there who have a better grasp of this. I offered to talk to whoever they wanted me to speak to, but they didn’t take this up.”
“Firms should find companies who are appropriate for the legal profession. HR should be made aware, because people often speak to HR first. HR needs to be alert to it, need to be aware that this is an issue as well,” she said.