IBA Wellbeing Survey: the need for a more effective response from the legal profession

Friday 28 May 2021

Chris Owen
Co-Chair, IBA European Regional Forum

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the need for greater action to address issues relating to lawyers’ mental wellbeing.

In 2019, the IBA established a taskforce with a view to implementing an internationally coordinated response to all too frequent reports of substance abuse, severe depression and suicide within the profession.

While existing initiatives by membership and regulatory bodies, legal practice and educational establishments exist at a jurisdictional level, the IBA recognised the greater impact by working together at the international level. Chiefly this is because there is:

  • a general lack of knowledge in the international legal community about good practice in the area of mental wellbeing and what that looks like;
  • none (or little) evaluative research on the effectiveness of existing wellbeing programmes in the legal sector; and
  • currently no forum for sharing information and good practice at an international level.

In addition to providing recommendations for improving wellbeing in the legal profession generally, the IBA is seeking to highlight the negative implications to the ‘bottom line’ of businesses where attention is not paid to employees’ wellbeing.

The World Health Organization has identified direct links between poor standards of wellbeing and increased absenteeism, lower standards of work, demotivated and burnt-out staff, and damaged relationships between colleagues. There are also the significant costs of absenteeism, presenteeism (coming to work despite poor health, and underperforming) and staff turnover.

Recent findings from the IBA Wellbeing Survey on mental wellbeing in the legal profession (https://www.ibanet.org/Mental-wellbeing-in-the-legal-profession.aspx) found that lawyer wellbeing remains a cause for global concern.

The survey was designed to provide a solid platform of international data on which to build effective recommendations for positive change. It provides a snapshot of the global views of a range of legal professionals and institutions.

The wellbeing index scores gathered from the survey data (based on the World Health Organization’s WHO-5 indexing methodology) demonstrate that lawyers’ levels of wellbeing are significantly below the global average in every regional forum.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Stigma is a major problem: 41 per cent of respondents said that they could not discuss wellbeing issues with their employer without worrying that it would damage their career or livelihoods;
  • Awareness about local and international wellbeing support and services available is low, and, in many jurisdictions, wellbeing support or services do not currently exist: 22 per cent of respondents said that no wellbeing help, guidance or support was in place in their jurisdiction;
  • Employers may think that wellbeing is a priority but this is not reflected in the experiences of their staff. Most employees think that their employers need to do more in this area, including 75 per cent of respondents aged between 25 and 35;
  • Wellbeing issues have a disproportionate impact on the young, on women, on those who identify as an ethnic minority and on those with disabilities, with those groups reporting wellbeing index scores consistently below the global average for other respondents; and
  • A large disparity between the number of institutions that say they have wellbeing initiatives in place (73 per cent), and the extent to which those in managerial positions are offered any sort of wellbeing training (16 per cent).

In this post pandemic world, it is no longer sufficient to place the onus solely on the individual practitioner to support their own mental wellbeing and deal with high levels of anxiety. We need to shift the conversation away from seeing lawyers’ mental wellbeing solely as a nice-to-have self-care issue. Instead, we need to understand it from a broader group and institutional perspective.

This is the only way to identify the systemic issues and the structural inequalities that exist across the entire life cycle of the legal career (from education and training through to practice and regulation) and which make the poor levels of mental wellbeing such a problematic issue for large sections of the profession.

The profession also needs to consider some of the cultural challenges that these high levels of anxiety reveal.

Since the early days of lockdown, the profession has been adept at introducing the technological innovations necessary to cope with remote working. It has however been far less effective in changing the overall workplace culture.

As one respondent from the IBA Wellbeing Survey comments: ‘I think the main problem we have is that our “client first” mentality means we sacrifice our own physical and mental health in order to meet the clients’ goals without recognising the impact (both long-term and short-term) this has on ourselves and the health and wellbeing of our teams.’

As a result many of the interventions to help junior members of staff during the pandemic to promote their mental wellbeing and to manage their workloads have been ineffective. Junior members of the profession take their cues from leadership and if the leaders are not seen to be providing emotional leadership by actively managing their own mental wellbeing effectively, the juniors will remain hesitant to do so.

Respondents from the IBA Wellbeing Survey, for example, attached far greater importance to the group culture within the workplace than they did to individual initiatives to reduce workloads. They were looking for increased levels of openness around discussing mental wellbeing in the workplace and a culture of mutual respect that addresses poor behaviour and that demonstrates a commitment to mental wellbeing.

So as the profession heads back to the office and we explore new hybrid ways of working, we also need to find new ways of sharing and connecting as well as motivating a new and diverse generation of lawyers. One critical element of this is in promoting an emotionally healthy workplace in which lawyers have the skills to cope with high levels of anxiety and where mental wellbeing forms a natural part of the conversation.

As another respondent to the IBA survey commented: ‘Mental Health is not just something that you can turn off and on with a switch. It is about a genuine commitment from the top down, and a continuous commitment.

This focus on the emotionally healthy workplace also makes sense from the perspective of the legal institution itself. It becomes a critical building block in establishing a strong sense of community within the group and a ‘psychologically safe’ workplace. It helps to provide the necessary mental wellbeing support when levels of anxiety are running high (with greater productivity, less absenteeism and reduced risks of mistakes). And it avoids the financial and reputational cost, as well as the human cost in failing to provide that support.

In an increasingly competitive environment, it also helps to retain and motivate talent and potentially provides a genuine differentiator in the market for the legal institution itself.