According to a 2015 survey by Legal Week (subscription required), 82 percent of partners and senior lawyers at leading U.K. and U.S. law firms think their long hours at work are harming their health. These results are from a survey of 267 senior lawyers at major US and UK firms. The majority of lawyers surveyed report that, in addition to working long hours during the week, they return to work every weekend. Further, over 10 percent said they work 70 hours or more in an average week, and that is only the thin edge of the wedge: 34 percent of respondents work 60 hours or more per week, and 75 percent work at least 50 hours every week. Respondents were not junior lawyers or new calls, but senior practitioners at high levels in law firm hierarchies.
Currently, a movement is building to acknowledge and remove the stigma from, mental health issues, especially with depression, that are troubling a statistically large number of lawyers. Notable leadership has been taken in this advocacy by Ontario Bar Association President Orlando Da Silva, who sees fighting the stigmatization of mental health struggles as a significant aspect of his Presidency with the OBA. Similarly, Canadian Bar Association Michele Hollins has shed light on her struggles with depression in order to counter the stigma faced by others. This advocacy is complementary to longstanding support made available to lawyers facing mental health issues by LPAC, the Legal Profession Assistance Conference of the CBA.
Without question, when leaders in our profession tell their stories about struggling with mental health, this advocacy is brave. It is important to remove the stigma from mental health concerns. However, when advocacy focuses on the struggles of individuals, the systemic and contextual circumstances that those individuals are facing can get blurred in the background. It is precisely those circumstances that the “Legal Week” study reveals that should be brought into view.
As was determined in 2012 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, long hours of work and lack of sleep produce depressive symptoms. The study’s authors, Drs. Amagasa and Nakayama came to the conclusion that decreasing workload ”reduces the occurrence of major depressive disorder …by controlling factors in the occupational environment." These findings are consistent with the recommendations of the recently-released Canadian National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace discussed by Blogger Alysia Davies earlier this year.
In light of the “Legal Week” study, and the findings of psychologists about long hours of work, it stands to reason that any advocacy initiatives undertaken to address lawyers’ mental health should go hand-in-hand with measures taken to address the systemic conditions in which lawyers work: both the individual and the systemic dimensions of lawyers’ health should be simultaneously brought into focus in order for our profession to be liveable for practitioners, and provide the best legal services to all.
Rebecca Bromwich is a lawyer for equality and law reform at Canadian Bar Association.
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