There has been a growing trend for global law firms to pay more attention to the mental health wellbeing of their lawyers, which became even more pronounced when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted traditional office life. Yet in Africa, the conversation around mental health wellbeing remains silent. According to a IBA Mental Health and Wellbeing study, only the Middle East is worse off than Africa when it comes to openly discussing mental wellbeing.
The report revealed that African lawyers suffered the second highest level of fatigue among legal workers globally, following their counterparts in North America. More than a quarter said they felt unable to perform at work, and almost half considered taking time off but did not. More than a third, considered looking for another job over the past 12 months—higher than any other region.
The inability to talk about mental health has made it difficult for African lawyers to confront or recognise whether they have the illness. Comments from survey respondents underscored the potential problems of suppressing the discourse.
One female lawyer at a South African law firm said: “The legal profession is a tough industry which entails working under pressure. I feel that there are many top level directors and partners who are ignorant to mental health issues that exist. Most people are under the impression that mental health issues such as anxiety and depression have no place in the legal work-space.”
The impact on some lawyers has been severe, like for this senior associate at a firm in Ghana: “I literally went home one night and the next morning, tried to get ready for work but I felt frozen. I was burnt out and mentally I could not bring myself to go to work. So I just sat at home and when I realised that my colleagues would be worried, I finally phoned in sick.”
A Nigerian-based law firm partner had an even more harrowing experience: “In the past, I have felt so tired and hopeless contemplating the volume of work and deliverables for success that when driving home at night I would wonder what would happen if I just continued driving off the bridge, instead of turning into the road. This happened more than five times.”
The coronavirus pandemic has only amplified existing issues at organisations that already ignored mental health wellbeing. One in-house lawyer in South Africa said that his company’s CEO routinely bullies staff and has no respect for personal boundaries.
“Victimisation, insults in the presence of colleagues and belittling staff are the order of the day. The lockdown has exacerbated issues. There is no delineation between office and private time. Instructions are sent at all hours of the day or night—even on weekends—via an office WhatsApp group which has become the channel in terms of which we are managed.”
Not only does mental health issues impact personal wellbeing, it can also affect a firm’s performance. An in-house counsel in Nigeria says the pandemic has underscored the need for lawyers to be mentally in the right place in order to properly service clients—and that means firms need to encourage more dialogue around mental health issues.
To find out more about the IBA's work on mental wellbeing in the global profession, click here.
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