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What to look out for – signs of poor wellbeing

Good mental health, which includes wellbeing and resilience, is critical for all lawyers – professionally and personally.

At a professional level, as we highlighted in our Lawyer Wellbeing Report, poor wellbeing is a barrier to lawyers being able to do their jobs effectively and provide quality legal services to Victorians.

At a personal level, many lawyers are suffering relatively high rates of psychological distress. In fact, some studies have found rates of self-reported depression to be as high as one in two among law students, solicitors and barristers in Australia. Behind these statistics are the very human stories of the profound emotional, social and financial impacts on individuals and their families. 

Thankfully, the legal profession has started to recognise that wellbeing is an important issue. At an industry and organisational level, there have been many initiatives designed to improve the situation, including employee assistance programs, workplace flexibility, diversity and inclusion initiatives, wellbeing awareness campaigns and formal wellbeing training. We also know more can be done.

What is too often missing is self-care. While many of us will stop and ask others “Are you ok?”, we may not stop to ask the same question of ourselves.

Perhaps that’s because there’s still a shadow cast by historical perceptions that mental health issues were signs of personal weakness, of not being up to the job or of not having the ‘toughness’ required to succeed in the law. These attitudes sometimes resulted in bullying and discrimination.

Perhaps it’s because we are so busy juggling heavy workloads, client issues, pressing deadlines and the pressures of competitive environments in which productivity may appear to be prized over personal wellbeing.

There can also be significant pressures to perform to the ‘standards’ of the traditional legal workplace: billing every six minutes, meeting budgets, continuing to bring in new clients and work – all of which can cause stress.

Additionally, there is the impact of working with people who have suffered trauma and other tragedies. We may feel that our own issues, including the vicarious trauma we experience along the way, pale in comparison.

Or perhaps it’s because we are typically high performing individuals with strong work ethics who have normalised stress and anxiety as part of practising law.

Whatever the reason, it’s time we all looked after ourselves because wellbeing is vital for our health and for having a sustainable legal career and providing the best quality of service to our clients.

The first step is to reflect on how you really are. Some of the wellbeing warning signs to look out for are:

  • not sleeping well
  • struggling to concentrate and not getting things done at work
  • withdrawing from close family and friends
  • relying on alcohol and sedatives
  • not doing usual enjoyable activities or going out
  • feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, restless or that everything is an effort
  • having intrusive memories of client stories or material
  • being unable to switch off from a matter
  • questioning your professional competence
  • wanting to help your client beyond what is permissible and professionally appropriate, and
  • feeling increasingly detached and insensitive.

Beyond Blue has a simple checklist that will help you reflect on your feelings over the past month.

If your workplace doesn’t encourage employee wellbeing and self-care, this is probably a red flag. Remember that you have options. As a lawyer, you have a wealth of highly sought-after skills and knowledge that have great value in other legal workplaces. These skills are also highly transferable to a range of rewarding roles outside of the legal profession. So grow your networks and don’t be afraid to look around. Law firms are increasingly innovating to improve service delivery as well as staff wellbeing. There are law firms that pride themselves on putting staff wellbeing at the centre of their business model, including through their approach to flexibility and work-life balance (including for those in regional areas).

If you think your wellbeing could be improved, we encourage you to talk to your doctor, access an EAP service, or draw on the many legal profession wellbeing resources available:

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