A 2018 report published by the World Health Organisation says that one out of four people suffers from a form of mental illness.
Unlike physical illness, mental illness has vivid characteristics; it is challenging to pinpoint because a lot of people put on a brave face sometimes making it difficult to see. Extreme situations, like suicide, have been a wake-up call to some employers who are now doing more to champion for their staff’s mental well-being.
Mental health is a major issue within the legal sector. A lawyer’s work is defined by long hours, financial targets and high pressure and, according to research, this has a negative impact on their mental health. A report by Beaton Consulting found one in three lawyers thinks about suicide at least once a year! Almost none of them confide in anyone – even their doctors – about how they feel.
The adversarial nature of legal practise means that showing high levels of stress or depression could be seen as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately it is the nature of the work that makes lawyers more vulnerable to psychological and mental distress.
There is an urgent need to cultivate a healthy working environment with a culture of support, openness and authenticity to ensure that lawyers thrive despite the stressful nature of their profession.
The following can be done to ensure the presence of a healthy workplace within the legal profession:
Train senior management: Law firms and organisations need to put in place training programmes for management and partners on issues around mental health. There needs to be ways to support people living with mental issues as well as those affected by it. A drawback is that management tends to seek a one-size-fits-all solution without acknowledging that there are differences in the way people act, think and feel. Every person is different and there needs to be a way to decode what makes them unique and factor in how to manage that aspect of uniqueness. An example is that some employees may be resilient when faced with challenges and others are unable to wade through murky waters without any form of support.
Develop mental health policies: Most law firms and organisations lack mental health policies that create healthy work spaces that could lead to improved mental health at the workplace. Some of the questions most of these organisations should pose should be: Are there policies that support and prevent stress and depression at the workplace? If not, it is time that the current policies are reviewed and matters relating to mental health are incorporated?
Create of a work/life balance: Maintaining work/life balance is often talked about as being a key objective in preserving one’s physical and mental wellbeing and staving off the insidious beasts of anxiety, depression and other issues attached to stress. However, this is an area that is unfamiliar to many in the legal fraternity. Lawyers are known to work for long hours, often pulling all-nighters. It is part of the job. This is not sustainable as people stop being at their optimum when they are subjected to constant pressure and this becomes hazardous to their mental health and subsequently there is a decline in productivity.
Therefore, organisations and law firms should focus on creating a work/life balance to reduce rampant stress and burnout at the workplace. This can be achieved by creating flexible work time, sponsoring out-of-office activities other than team building activities and increasing their frequency. The opportunity to get out, recharge and come back fresh, will enhance anyone’s performance in the workplace.
Create a culture of recognition: Recognition trickles down from the top. When people in senior positions develop the habit or culture of recognising their staff for a job well done, the feeling of positivity and reciprocity trickles through the ranks. This reduces stress, builds greater bonds between teammates and creates a positive and motivational environment for employees to thrive as their hard work is appreciated.
Increase awareness and create mental health support: Employers should invest in research material and facilitate access to this for their employees to learn about mental health. Through this they can initiate campaigns within the office and ways on how to reach out to fellow employees when in distress and also support programmes to reach out to mental health professionals. Some of the support programmes may include:
Including mental health in diversity and inclusion strategies, and recognising the mental health component of wider equality initiatives. To ensure this, the organisation should create a platform that does not discriminate or sideline issues around mental health.
Give positive reasons for employees to disclose their mental health status by establishing a culture that values authenticity and openness – this should be led from the top.
Explore setting up peer support and mentoring programmes within the law firm or organisation for staff with lived experience of mental health problems.
Provide opportunities for management to attend relevant training to support staff living with mental health problems and also those that generally provide for the wellbeing of all staff.
Create employee assistance programmes. An employee assistance programme is a confidential counselling service offered by employers to their employees to support their well-being in the workplace and in their personal lives. Depending on the employer’s arrangement, the programme may also extend to immediate family members. This goes a long way in providing psychosocial support to distressed lawyers, thereby improving mental health in the organisation as a whole and enhancing productivity
Additionally, the Law Society of Kenya needs to look into creating a functional hotline for lawyers in need of psychosocial support ie where lawyers are put into contact with a mental health practitioner who has experience in treating social and psychological problems. There is also the need for lawyer support groups that are created and run by the society. This is where a panel of lawyers assist colleagues with personal and professional issues that are detrimental to their mental health. However, these groups should not disclose the information relayed by the lawyers in distress. They must be confidential.
Being a lawyer is a demanding job and most people tend to benefit from having outlets where they can relieve stress, as well as being comfortable in the knowledge that they work in a supportive environment and won’t be judged for opening up. The legal fraternity needs to invest in mental health. It will be a win-win situation as this will lead to a more productive and happier workforce.
Lynn works with the Health Rights Advocacy Forum (HERAF) in Kenya to ensure a human rights-based approach to healthcare delivery. She is also the founder of the Mental Health Wellness Project Africa aimed at reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues.
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