Seven out of ten legal sector workers (69%) describe themselves as suffering from poor mental health, with their union saying it showed a “crisis” in the law.
A similar proportion (72%) indicated that they “would not feel comfortable” asking for time off for mental health reasons, with 54% concerned that disclosing problems would “adversely impact progression”.
The survey of just over 300 solicitors, barristers, paralegals, administrative staff and clerks was carried out by the trade union Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), part of United Voices of the World. Paralegals made up 41% of respondents, solicitors 29% and barristers 25%.
Almost two-thirds of respondents worked on cases primarily funded by legal aid, with only 24% working mainly on privately funded cases. The rest worked in-house, for local or central government or for charity.
Strikingly, the 69% figure matched exactly the proportion of respondents to legal mental health charity LawCare’s survey earlier this year who said they had experienced mental ill-health (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) in the previous 12 months. The majority of respondents to LawCare’s poll were qualified lawyers.
Four in ten of those surveyed by the LSWU said they had actually been diagnosed with a mental illness, with overwork the reason given for mental health problems, cited by 219 workers.
This was followed by ‘vicarious trauma’, pay, supervision concerns, and billing and targets. A significant minority, 52 respondents, identified bullying as a factor.
A majority (57%) said they would feel comfortable discussing their mental health or wellbeing with an employer or senior colleagues, but 34% would not.
Examples given of the impact of adverse mental health on their job were lack of productivity, poor sleep “causing tiredness and burnout”, inability to focus, lack of “motivation/enthusiasm or compassion” and “phone phobia and social anxiety”.
Almost half of respondents said their work “did not have effective systems in place to supervise remote working”.
However, 63% said their employer offered dedicated mental health support, the most common forms being employee assistance programmes – such as an app or website with mental health advice and sometimes a telephone advice line – and mental health first aiders or peer support.
When asked what kind of support would improve their mental health, the most common answer was “some form of talking counselling or therapy”, either fully funded or subsidised.
This was followed by paid mental health sick days, “addressing the culture of overwork and recognising that you are not contactable at all hours”, an “increase in pay for legal aid work” and “more realistic targets”.
Legal sector workers said they wanted their union to focus most of all on removing the stigma from mental health, ‘no reason necessary’ mental health days, and campaigning to increase pay in the sector as well as for more flexible working and against bullying and harassment.
A spokesman for LSWU commented: “While we expected that the results wouldn’t be pretty, we were shocked by the extent and severity of the mental health crisis facing the legal sector.
“Unless bosses take real action, and soon, their staff will be at risk of burnout, breakdown, or leaving the sector altogether.”