Stigma and lack of awareness are key concerns for lawyers struggling with their wellbeing

A global wellbeing survey published by the International Bar Association (IBA) has found that lawyers’ levels of wellbeing are below the global average in every regional forum. Stigma and a lack of awareness are reported as key issues and while many workplaces cite wellbeing as being a priority, this was not reflected in the experiences of staff. 

IBA issued two surveys between July and December 2020 – one for individuals and one for organisations – and received responses from more than 3000 individuals and over 180 legal organisations, including law firms, in-house legal teams, bar associations and law societies. 

Lawyer wellbeing index scores (based on the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5 indexing methodology) were found to be below the global average in every part of the world, with no one jurisdiction having a monopoly on these issues.

Stigma was identified as a key cause for concern; 41 per cent of respondents said they did not feel they could discuss wellbeing concerns with their employer without worrying that it would damage their career or livelihoods.

Awareness about available wellbeing support and services was low. 28 per cent of respondents specifically cited the need for increased levels of awareness to be fostered in the workplace. 22 per cent of respondents said that no wellbeing help, guidance or support was in place in their jurisdiction, suggesting that in many areas, this support does not currently exist. 

73 per cent of organisations said they had wellbeing initiatives in places; however, only 16 per cent of managers had been offered any sort of wellbeing training – a significant disparity. 

While many employers laud wellbeing as being a priority, this is not reflected in the experiences of their staff; 75 per cent of respondents aged between 25 and 35 said that employers needed to do more in this area, demonstrating that health and wellbeing is a priority for young professionals. 23 per cent called for more resources for professional support and direct intervention.

The survey showed that wellbeing issues have a disproportionate impact on the young, women, those from ethnic minority groups and those with disabilities, with those groups reporting wellbeing index scores consistently below the global average for other respondents.

International Bar Association president, Horacio Bernardes Neto, commented: “When I became president of the IBA in 2019, I made addressing mental wellbeing within the legal profession one of my main priorities. I had become increasingly concerned with all too frequent reports of substance abuse, severe depression and suicide within the profession.” 

Reflecting on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, Bernardes Neto added: “Little did I, or any of us, know of the events that were to come. The devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction and other such attacks on our wellbeing may have preceded the coronavirus pandemic, but there is no question that it has exacerbated their impact.”

The survey was conducted as part of a taskforce established by Bernardes Neto to formulate a response to the wellbeing crisis. In addition to making recommendations for improving wellbeing in the legal profession generally, the IBA intends to provide “a holistic picture to include the negative implications to the ‘bottom line’ of businesses where attention is not paid to employees’ wellbeing.”

The taskforce cited a 2020 Deloitte study that estimated poor mental health cost UK employers between £42 and £45 billion annually, including the costs of absenteeism, presenteeism (coming to work despite poor health and underperforming) and staff turnover.

The taskforce has identified its next steps following analysis of the survey findings: to raise awareness and destigmatise discussions around mental health and wellbeing; and to investigate how institutions can stage effective interventions to improve workplace culture and tackle relevant structural issues “to prevent the many suffering alone or in silence.”

A webinar with global experts on legal wellbeing is planned for October to coincide with world mental health day 2021. The panel will discuss the work of the taskforce to date, as well as its future goals. Details of the IBA wellbeing taskforce can be found here.