Mental wellness of lawyers in Nigeria
Nigeria is evolving as a result of having more investment and new businesses and becoming more commercialized in terms of infrastructural development. Lawyers play a major role in most transactions in the society; hence more deliverables are expected from Lawyers.
A lawyer being responsible for another human being is a difficult task, and in a bid to carry out their legal duty, they tend to neglect taking care of their own mental wellness. Legal practitioners are cerebral thinkers and are seen by the society as unemotional in how they discharge their legal duties which requires a lot of sacrifice and dedication.
In their quest to provide the best service for their clients they must also strive to take good care of themselves and recognize certain triggers that will be detrimental to their mental health. There is a Maxim that says “you cannot give what you do not have” -nemo dat quod non habet. It is important to take care of oneself and look after ones mental health.
As legal practitioners, providing services for clients needs us to take care of ourselves and not sacrifice our mental health; we need to take a break when we have to, as a healthy mind contributes to healthy justice architecture.
In 2019 The International Bar Association (IBA) was deeply concerned about the mental wellbeing of legal professionals and embarked on a global project to address the issue of mental wellness in the global profession. IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto, established a Taskforce, led by two Bar Issues Commission Officers, and the Legal Policy & Research Unit. The Taskforce commissioned two global wellbeing surveys for lawyers and legal institutions1. The Taskforce was mandated to convene representatives from different jurisdictions with an interest in advancing mental health. The Taskforce was also assigned to identify synergy, and develop and disseminate the findings of the Taskforce survey in line with the Taskforce Statement.
The Taskforce sought to achieve these aims by fostering an open spirit of cooperation and support; by listening to and championing those who have struggled, and are struggling, with poor mental health. The Taskforce valued all perspectives, and encouraged participants to fully support the objectives and activities of the IBA more broadly.
The survey received well over 3,200 individual and 180 institutional responses from around the world2. The Taskforce was largely focused on tackling the underlying causes of poor mental health which were identified by the surveys. However, it is important to recognise that there is no single cause of impaired mental wellbeing. Both causes and effects are likely to vary depending on many factors such as: an individual’s age, seniority, practice area, role, etc.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these existing trends around mental wellbeing as well as bringing issues such as digital wellbeing to the fore. The impact on mental wellbeing is likely to be significant and long-lasting, meaning it is becoming an increasingly resonant concern. Other issues such as substance abuse and suicide are some of the most extreme consequences of not recognising and addressing these problems.
The results of the surveys and other published data, demonstrate that the culture and practice of law can have a negative impact on mental health of those working within it. It seems obvious that a healthy, engaged, and resilient legal sector is more productive, effective, and sustainable. Wellbeing should therefore be of central importance to the international legal community, and profession as a whole.
In terms of the IBA’s unique role there is an opportunity to achieve more by working together internationally. This was confirmed by the results of the IBA’s surveys, which showed that:
- One in ten young lawyers worldwide experience suicidal thoughts;
- Lawyers face similar well being challenges across jurisdictions;
- Low awareness and availability of wellbeing support and services;
- Stigma is a major problem: it is very difficult for practitioners and students to acknowledge they may have problems and seek help without worrying that it will damage their career or livelihoods;
- General lack of knowledge in the legal community about good practices to tackle these issues;
- Little evaluative research on the effectiveness of existing wellbeing programmes in the legal sector;
- Limited resources across jurisdictions in the legal sectors;
- Limited training for those in senior management positions in law firms; and
- Lawyers seem to be taking positive and healthy personal steps to sustain their mental wellbeing at an individual level: they need institutional change, which requires global support.
The IBA is deeply concerned about the wellbeing within the legal profession and intends to drive this work forward and incorporate not only institutions and individuals but also regulatory and representative bodies as well as other key stakeholders within this dialogue.
It is generally accepted that the importance of the mental health of the legal community needs greater recognition and action. A full report of the survey will be launched at the meeting with global experts on legal wellbeing issues which is scheduled for 2021.
The devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction, and other attacks on our mental health may have preceded Covid-19, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated them. The world is being confronted with multiple pandemics rather than just one.3
In 2018 to 2019, in 2018 to 2019 it was globally estimated that 12.8 million working days were lost because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression, amounting to an average of 21.2 days lost per case.4
Many law practicing individuals and organizations in Nigeria fall short when it comes to employee wellness. While it’s great that most corporate programs heavily emphasize physical health through benefits like dental plans and prescription drug coverage, the body is only half the equation. Our brains are just as crucial to our well-being, especially considering the detrimental effects mental illness can have on physical health, such as increased blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, and heightened risk of cancer. There should be effective psychological and pharmacological assistance for lawyers.
The first step to beating the stigma is to stop treating mental illness as taboo. Whether it’s an article you read, a show you watched, or a personal experience you had, talking about it openly and without shame will help others realize they aren’t alone.
The Culture that prioritizes psychological well-being helps employees who are struggling to feel safe, and encourages everyone to improve their mental health. Corporate leaders should take this more seriously in order to improve the organizational culture and remove the stigma.
Mental health is fundamental to individual organizational and national well-being. Specifically, the work environment should be psychologically safe and equal attention should be given to promoting both the physical and mental well-being of all individuals in the workplace5. Law has been described as a profession characterized by high pressure and competitive environment6, and a legal practitioner’s work value is often defined by excessive working hours, statutory time limits/deadlines, all of which exposes the legal practitioner to higher incidences of anxiety, stress, and mental illness.
This article explains the culture of mental wellness in the workplace in Nigeria, with particular emphasis on the mental well-being of legal practitioners. It expatiates on the causes and the negative effects of poor mental wellness of legal practitioners and how organizations can address issues of mental wellness. It also highlights existing policies and initiatives that cater to the mental well-being of legal practitioners in Nigeria.
Arguably, in Nigeria, there is a culture of indifference, denial and evasion towards mental wellness, as there exists little discussion and open acknowledgment of mental wellbeing; the focus being usually centered on physical health and financial welfare. Most times, lawyers are reluctant to disclose their struggle with work-life balance to their employers, clients, and supervisors because it may sabotage their credibility and reputation, jeopardize their career and possibly render their firm or organizations liable for sub-standard service delivery7.
The majority of organizations in Nigeria, including law offices, focus on fee earning, growth and productivity of their establishment, overlooking the overreaching consequences of poor mental health on their employees; only a few organizations recognize that protecting the mental wellbeing of legal practitioners and building a toxic-free work environment protects the wellbeing of the organization. Statistics shows that organizations that put forward employee’s wellbeing have greater productivity, higher employee retention rate, etc8.
There is no single causative factor of poor mental well-being amongst legal practitioners9. Poor mental wellness arises from a culmination of multiple factors like time constraints and deadlines, high expectations of quality performance and expertise, constant scrutiny and critical judgment of a legal practitioners work, the tendency to assume a client’s burdens, etcetera.
Regardless of what causes poor mental wellness, the mental well-being of all employees including legal practitioners should be the core focus of every legal employer or organization because mental illness, if left unattended, adversely affects the morale of lawyers, leads to poor exercise of judgment, and an inability to concentrate. A World Health Organization led study rightly noted that workplaces that promote mental wellness and support individuals struggling with mental health are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains10.
When asked about possible causes of mental stress/illness in the work place, junior associates in top-tier law firms in Nigeria shared similar thoughts on factors in the work environment that contributed to their poor mental wellness and these factors include; unhealthy rivalry/competition amongst colleagues, overbearing team leaders, pressure to deliver standard work within impracticable/unrealistic timelines, personal priorities etc. Legal practitioners in private practice further revealed that due to unrealistic depiction of perfection and high expectations of expertise and success from clients, it is more difficult for them to admit to struggling, making mistakes and needing help. Specifically noting the comment of an anonymous junior associate in a top-tier law firm; “Legal practice is demanding…you have to put in a lot of work if you want to stand out...even if it means you sacrificing your sanity...”.
In addressing the effect of poor mental wellness on work output, most legal practitioners stated that mental stress usually affected the quality of work delivered as it made them perform below standard and be less thorough with office work, whilst some admitted to frequently having nervous breakdown, making mistakes, and absenteeism at work. Others noted that although absenting oneself from work may be the most convenient method of dealing with mental stress, such absenteeism would have a ripple effect which may take the form of negative review given by a team leader or supervisor, therefore it is always best to block out every distraction and focus on work at all costs. According to an anonymous mid-level associate in a law firm; “most times you have to just look out for yourself. “Personally, I had to be really conscious of myself and try as much as possible not to let it affect me… and make sure I am in a strong place mentally, so it won’t affect my output...”.
A vast majority of legal practitioners explained that after communicating feelings of mental stress, their law offices neglected to acknowledge or even provide any form of support as most times the law office is only concerned with output, results and productivity as such, they usually check mental wellness of their staff just when one is not being productive. Highlighting the comment of an anonymous Associate in a law firm better explains this point; “...my law firm can definitely do better because no matter what it is, law offices and organizations have to try as much as possible to ensure that their staff are comfortable, healthy, and can trust the law office enough to want to work for it. Where staff feels like the law office does not care about them, it would create distrust and reduce productively level. I personally do not work well with people I do not trust. If you create that trust in your work environment, people will put in a lot”.
A small minority of respondents said that their organization successfully managing the mental wellbeing of their employee by creating a platform where employees can communicate issues of mental wellness, sexual harassment and bullying to the human resource manager. This communication is sometimes done via a generic e-mail address which does not disclose the identity of the user. An informal counseling session that connects those experiencing anxiety and depression with mental health professionals or other peers having similar experiences are sometimes also organized.
Notwithstanding the slack attitude towards mental wellness in the work environment in Nigeria, Nigeria still acknowledges that physical wellness is intimately linked with mental well-being11 . This informed the adoption of the National Policy for Mental Health Services Delivery Nigeria12, with the objective of addressing mental health issues in the nation. Despite the various initiatives13 and policy on mental wellness undertaken by the Nigerian government and non-governmental organizations, such initiatives may not be a “fit for purpose” solution to specific mental wellness issues of legal professionals as they merely aim to create awareness for mental illness.
Additionally, the level of support for mental wellness of legal professionals in Nigeria is still limited to independent measures such as informal counseling sessions, and questionnaires designed to assess mental well-being issues. These measures are employed by a limited number of law offices that prioritize managing the wellbeing of their staff, as there is no known support system set up solely for the purpose of promoting the mental well-being of legal professionals in Nigeria.
Given that the existing initiatives on mental health in Nigeria are not specifically tailored to manage the mental well-being of legal practitioners, it is therefore imperative for professional bodies like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to prioritize the mental health and wellness of all their members and take a more structured and proactive stance in protecting their mental well-being.
This can be achieved by creating awareness on mental wellness through workshops and trainings, establishing a platform that will provide access to appropriate services and mental health professionals, amongst other innovative measures which the IBA is currently working on.
In ameliorating the deplorable state, the government needs to make policies that are responsive and impactful to support employees’ mental well-being.
We are all responsible for mental well-being and should do our best to emulate the ideas below.
We must also speak candidly about mental health: The first step to beating the stigma and stop treating mental illness as taboo. Whether it’s an article you read, a show you watched, or a personal experience you had, talking about it openly and without shame will help others realize they aren’t alone.
Keeping the conversation going: This will enable others to speak about their mental wellness, workplace culture must be nurtured, which means sensitization should be a culture by finding multiple opportunities to incorporate the subject into employees’ day so it stays top-of-mind.
Inclusion and belonging: Culture starts at the top. Employees won’t believe that you genuinely care about their well-being unless every Senior/executive Staff demonstrates the importance of mental health.Sensitization: Part of preventative health involves giving your mind and body a break every now and then, and allowing your staff to miss work in order to recharge can help them stave off more serious health issues down the road. Raising awareness to curb stigma, formulate policies that are responsive and impactful towards work life balance.
Show concern and be ready to assist: If an employee displays irritability or low mood don’t hesitate to ask them if everything is alright. Even if they tell you they’re fine, remind them that you’re there to help and that they have access to assistance.
Make sure the tools and resources are relevant: No matter how much information you supply your employees, it’ll never do any good if it’s outdated or irrelevant. In fact, it might even do harm. Frequently audit your mental health resources to make sure they’re accurate, up-to-date, and contain practical advice that your employees can use to get better.Facilitate access to these resources: Similar to the previous point, your staff won’t get much use out of the information if it’s difficult for them to find. Eliminate barriers to access by providing the content in a variety of formats (audio, video, written, etc), and minimizing the number of steps it takes for them to find it. Prioritize confidentiality and anonymity: Even though mental health might be normalized in your workplace, some people might still feel uncomfortable discussing it, particularly if they struggle with addiction, trauma, or suicidal thoughts. Reassure your staff that their privacy is your top concern, and that their use of mental health resources will never be monitored or tracked. Design a mentally healthy work space: It’s important for your employees to feel energized and uplifted by their work environment. Research has shown productivity, engagement, and overall wellness increase when people feel comfortable in workspaces with natural lighting, plants, and other positive features. The detrimental impact of mental health and wellbeing issues upon workplace productivity, efficacy and retention of staff is well documented, with the World Health Organization estimating the global economic cost of depression and anxiety to be US $ 1 trillion per year14. Focus on the positive: Mental illness is a serious issue, but it can still be addressed in a way that makes people feel understood, appreciated, and hopeful. We should always remember to leave employees feeling like they have a clear plan of action ahead and that they or their loved ones can get well.
The IBA survey and task force work, is an effort to create a evidence based recommendations, by on boarding stakeholders around the world and leveraging their expertise to develop global principles designed to guide the profession’s future work in this area. It also hopefully illustrates the unprecedented opportunity that we have as a profession to focus on mental wellbeing in the post-Covid era, as well as the enormous support and interest in this subject that is emerging across the world. The challenge now is to continue building on this work in order to create a supportive, inclusive, equitable and well led profession that we all want to be part of.
1 International Bar Association ‘Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession’ https://www.ibanet.org/Mental-wellbeing-in-the-legal-profession.aspx accessed March 28 2021
3 WHO, "Depression"(January 30 2020) https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression accessed November 12 2020
4 Siobhan Palmer, ‘12 million working days lost to work-related mental health conditions last year’ (People Management, November 20 2019) https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/12-million-working-days-lost-to-work-related-mental-health-conditions accessed November 12 2020
5 Oyewunmi, Adebukola Esther, Oyewunmi, Olabode Adeleke, Iyiola, Oluwole Oladele and Ojo, Ayannike Yemisi, ‘Mental health and the Nigerian workplace: Fallacies, facts and the way forward, International Journal of Psychology and Counselling, Vol. 7(7), pp. 106-111.’ (August 2015) https://academicjournals.org/journal/IJPC/article-full-text-pdf/4D7E58E54857 accessed November 11 2020
6 Darena Muça, ‘McGill Journal of Law and Health’ (Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness in the Legal Profession November 2019) https://mjlh.mcgill.ca/2019/11/28/elevated-incidence-of-mental-illness-in-the-legal-profession/amp/ accessed September 3, 2020
7 Scott Mitchell, ‘Mental Health in the Legal Profession’ (From the September/October 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar) https://www.mcca.com/mcca-article/mental-health-in-the-legal-profession/ accessed November 10
8 WHO,’Mental health in the workplace’ (Information sheet May 2019) https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/ accessed November 11 2020
9 Richard Collier, ‘How do we tackle the legal profession’s mental health problem?’ (April 29 2019) https://www.legalcheek.com/2019/04/how-do-we-tackle-the-legal-professions-mental-health-problem/ accessed November 11 2020 accessed September 2 2020
10 WHO,’Mental health in the workplace’ (Information sheet May 2019) https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/ accessed November 11 2020
11 Adam Felman, ‘Medical News Today’ (What is mental health? April 13 2020) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/154543#risk-factors accessed November 11 2020
12 Federal Ministry of Health Abuja Nigeria, ‘National Policy for Mental Health Services Delivery Nigeria’ (August 2013) https://cheld.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/national_policy_for_mental_health_service_delivery__2013_.pdf accessed November 11 2020
13 Mentally Aware Nigeria initiative (a Nigerian non-profit organization founded in 2015) https://www.mhinnovation.net/organisations/mentally-aware-nigeria-initiative accessed March 16 2021
14 World Health Organization ‘Mental health and Substance Use’ (Mental health in the workplace) https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/mental-health-in-the-workplace accessed March 16 2021