While lawyers' attitudes towards depression in the workplace have improved, law firms still fall short when it comes to taking action. Claire Chaffey reports
Law firms need to provide more training in regards to depression and anxiety in the workplace if the legal profession is to effectively deal with mental illness, a new study has shown.
The survey, conducted by Beaton Research & Consulting and beyondblue: the national depression initiative, examined awareness levels and attitudes regarding depression and anxiety disorders among 18,000 professionals in Australia.
It found that in 2011, lawyers were less likely to hold stigmatising views about depression in the workplace than they were in 2007.
"There has been a dramatic improvement in the knowledge, education and understanding among those in the legal profession of things to do with depressive illnesses," the chairman of beyondblue, Jeffrey Kennett AC, told Lawyers Weekly.
"You now have a situation where 22 per cent of lawyers have been subjected to some form of mental health, depression or anxiety training. That is a huge improvement on where we were 10 years ago, when I suggest there was none, and a big improvement on where we were in 2007."
However, the survey also found that barriers still exist when it comes to engaging in proactive behaviour and actually assisting a colleague who may be experiencing depression.
According to Kennett, this challenge can be resolved by providing training to all legal professionals.
"Every legal firm in Australia, however big or small, should commit themselves to having mental health training within their workplace," he said.
"One of the wonderful things that has happened as a result of this research is that more people are aware of depression, but there are still a number of people that are uncomfortable about their firm or themselves offering assistance ... A lot of people are still concerned about offering advice to a colleague, concerned that they might have their heads bitten off for interfering. But if everyone in the workplace was educated about depression, the person that you're approaching would probably quite understand your approach and, in many cases, might be very grateful."
The survey also found that 73.3 per cent of lawyers agree that having a stressful job increases the likelihood of depression, compared to 63.1 per cent in 2007.
According to Kennett, billable hours and a heavy focus on six-minute increments is a major contributing factor to stress. And while he is hopeful that this system will eventually be removed, he says that in the mean time, the percentage of lawyers attending workplace training must increase.
"We challenge legal firms to spend a bit of time and money having workplace training, because it's the best investment they'll ever make," he says. "If you end up with a happy and healthy workforce you are obviously going to be more productive than if you have got people who are not performing at their norm, or are absent from work altogether.
"We will be looking at ways and means of getting to every legal firm to see if we can't ensure that they have training."