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The mental health stigma: how the legal industry is responding

The awareness around mental health has increased dramatically in recent years. Significant efforts have been made on a global scale to reshape society’s perception of mental health problems, and in turn diminish the associated stigma.

Through perpetual campaigning, charity work, and high-profile figures speaking publicly – including members of the royal family – great strides have been made to bring the subject of mental health problems into the limelight. Raising substantial awareness of the topic is encouraging more people to come forward to speak and seek support.

National initiatives including ‘Time to Change’ and ‘This is Me in the City’ have helped to propel forward the mental health agenda. Meanwhile, it has gained an increased focus in Parliament with Prime Minister Theresa May pledging last year to ‘tackle the injustice of mental illness’.

The government commissioned an independent review in 2017 into how employers can better support the mental health of people in employment – and the findings were stark – concluding that workplace mental health should now be a priority for organisations. The review revealed that more people are in work with a mental health problem than ever before, but ‘many individuals with mental health problems are struggling emotionally, off sick, less productive, or leaving employment’.

As a result, the workplace has come under an unprecedented level of pressure to ensure steps are being taken to improve corporate culture. As Mental Health Awareness Week approaches (14-20 May), this year’s campaign, led by the Mental Health Foundation, is focusing on stress. The charity claims that ‘the workplace is a leading source of stress for people, with sometimes devastating effects’.

What about the legal industry?

The legal industry faces the same challenges. Working as a lawyer can, of course, be very stressful, with extremely longs hours, large workloads, and often an unrelenting requirement to meet client or business demand.

Official figures, published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2017, on ‘work-related stress, depression or anxiety’ ranked the legal profession fourth in the list of the most stressful jobs.

Meanwhile, statistics revealed by the charity LawCare, highlighted that calls from lawyers to its helpline has reached a ‘record high’. The charity received nearly 900 calls last year from 616 callers – representing an 11 percent rise compared to 2016. Nearly half of the solicitors and barristers who called in for help cited depression (17 percent) and workplace stress (27 percent) as the reason. Other problems included disciplinary concerns, anxiety, and bereavement, financial problems, bullying and harassment, chronic illness, alcohol and drugs, career development and relationship issues.

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, said the growing number of calls to the helpline is rising every year and is showing no sign of abating. “Life in the law can be challenging. Long hours, a competitive environment, heavy workload and pressure to meet billing targets can contribute to stress and mental health issues”, said Rimmer.

“We received a wide variety of calls to our helpline from barristers feeling burnt out, young trainees and students struggling with the workload, and experienced lawyers and partners dealing with depression. The number of callers to our helpline continues to increase every year and we are working with our partners across the legal community to raise awareness about why mental health matters”.

However, in response to such alarming trends and the advancement of the mental health agenda across the wider society, the legal industry – despite a steady start – has in recent years began to take decisive steps to address mental health in the workplace.

The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, which was launched in 2016, is gaining momentum and support. The cross-profession taskforce was initiated by the Law Society in partnership with other legal organisations, including the Bar Council, CILEx Regulation, LawCare, and BPP to promote and support mental health and well-being in the legal community. Similarly, the City Mental Health Alliance was established by a coalition of businesses in London, and is currently chaired by Nigel Jones – Partner at Linklaters. The Alliance is steered by senior leaders striving to create a culture of good mental health for City workers, and to share best practices and increase mental health understanding.

Rimmer said that there is now better awareness around mental health in the legal industry, and law firms are confronting the issue, adding: “the legal community is much more receptive to talking about mental health thanks to increased awareness and greater understanding over the last few years, and there are many firms pioneering their own well-being initiatives. There is still much to be done, however, and we will continue to work towards ending the stigma of mental illness”.

One firm that has been making a concerted effort to increase the awareness around mental health in the workplace is Trowers & Hamlins. The firm has focused on creating an ‘open and honest’ culture, where employees ‘feel comfortable sharing their experiences with others’ – a product of the firm’s diversity and inclusion programme, TrowersIncludes. The ideology of the programme is ‘embedded’ in the culture of the firm, according to Helen Randall, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

The initiative is comprised of several networks, one of which includes the physical and mental well-being strand, where its objectives and activity is championed by both junior and senior employees. TrowersIncludes promotes the concept of an inclusive working environment where staff feel supported, and know exactly where to go to if they are struggling. The firm has also created a platform for employees to share experiences, often inviting external speakers, and has an ongoing learning and development initiative alongside TrowersIncludes, where it recently held psychological resilience training with all partners and managers.

“As an industry we are being proactive in what we are doing and we do realise that it is an issue in law firms. At Trowers & Hamlins, we have been trying to make sure the mental health issue gets out there and everyone knows about it,” Randall added. “It is important for staff to have the sign posts; where to go, and who to speak to and having someone available to speak to. If people are struggling with something, having an open and honest culture – supported by initiatives like our TrowersIncludes networks that are made available – so that people know that it is not a stigma”.

Good progress, but a long way to go

Significant progress has been made to eliminate the mental health stigma. Meanwhile, in recent years, the legal industry has begun to replicate the efforts to promote the mental health agenda that has been seen across wider society. And some progress has been made.

But in a highly charged, pressurised industry, changing corporate culture will come with inevitable challenges. However, throughout the industry there is a growing appetite to make this happen.

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