Karen Jackson is a senior solicitor and is Director of didlaw, a boutique employment law firm founded in 2008 and specialising in disability discrimination, mental health issues in the workplace and work-related stress. She is a fierce advocate for the rights of employees who suffer mental illness and also advises employers on best practice. didlaw offers training around equality and creating mentally healthy workplaces through didlaw EDUCATION.
Everyone knows that stress is a reaction to excessive pressure. It isn’t big or clever to be stressed or busy all the time, but our culture seems to view being overwhelmed as a badge of honour. It carries kudos. Pulling an all-nighter is applauded and, in some large firms, actively encouraged. It is perceived as a macho way to work and it is nonsensical. This is the core of the stress problem in law firms. It is an unhealthy attitude to working life that drips down into an organisation and is causing a stress epidemic. Everyone knows someone who is or has been off work due to stress. People leave the office and mysteriously never reappear. All too often, they are exited as soon as it is known that they have a stress issue. Far too few people are rehabilitated. Many are viewed as damaged goods. Every year great lawyers leave the profession because stress eventually leads to breakdown. The loss of talent should be a cause for alarm.
Stress and mental ill-health are now the top reasons for long-term sickness. They rank above cancer, strokes, heart attacks and musculoskeletal injuries. Work is the also the number one cause of stress in the UK, according to The Samaritans. Britain’s workplace is stressed out and something needs to be done to address it. If you’ve ever worked for a workaholic boss, you will know exactly what I mean. That moment when you want to go home because your brain is done for the day but it’s not yet 6pm and you daren’t. Or you do dare but leave your coat on the back of your chair so that it looks like you are still there.
When I was a trainee, most juniors had a jacket they left in the office permanently for this purpose. I was seen as a radical because I went home at reasonable hours. I am sure I was viewed as uncommitted. Well, I seem to have been pretty successful without all that rubbish, proving that it is nonsense! I tell my team that they can work when they want and when they are productive, provided the client is happy and taken care of. An overly-prescriptive approach of working between set hours of 9 to 5, or more likely in the legal profession, 9 to 9, is an anachronism.
In the workplace, the source of pressure can be anything: too many conflicting demands; too little time; unreasonable targets; a demanding and unreasonable boss; bullying; a lack of support – the list goes on. The HSE guidance on tacking work-related stress is clear about the Management Standards approach that employers should adopt through assessing workplace risks to health. Research has identified six aspects of work which can have a negative impact on employee health and lead to stress. They are: demands, control, support, role, change, and relationships.
It’s not rocket-science. The work has been done to find out the why of workplace stress. What needs to be done is more work on the how to prevent it and assistance for workers in addressing it in a healthy and positive manner, before they are off sick long-term and lost to the labour market.
When we at didlaw get a call around work-related stress, we can almost always predict what the prospective client is going to tell us. For example: person has worked in an organisation for a long time and done well, new boss comes in with aggressive management style, performance management begins, which in turn causes a performance issue – the person then blows a fuse. Other common scenarios are similar but involve a demanding and unreasonable boss or a line manager who thinks that managing is a byword for bullying.
A particular problem with the British culture, in my opinion, is that many organisations are run by what I refer to as the ‘old guard’ (not wishing to be age discriminatory, but referring simply to an outmoded mentality). The old guard think a bit of bullying and a bit of stress never did them any harm so why don’t people just ‘man up’? I’ve addressed cases of multiple bullying in organisations where it is clear that management do not think bullying is a problem which merits action.
There should be, across all organisations, a zero tolerance approach to bullying and new managers should be taught about what is and is not an acceptable management style. Bullying is a major problem in the British workplace. It causes stress. It causes mental breakdown. It’s quite right that the law says employers must be accountable. They have a duty to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of workers and they are not doing it. The OECD points out that mental health has a huge impact on economic productivity and that rising rates of depression and anxiety are bad for our economy and for businesses as well as individuals, yet Corporate Britain is slow on the uptake.
How does stress affect us?
We all think we know stress and its effects, but do we really appreciate the full extent of the damage? Quite aside from the very damaging mental health issues stress causes, there are also a range of other health effects, including heart problems, blood pressure (which can cause stroke – heard the one about the fit, healthy and lean lawyer who keels over and dies in his fifties – that would be the stress).
Excessive levels of cortisol in the blood, which follows on from over-stimulation of the fight or flight response for a prolonged period, is one of the reasons overworked lawyers cannot sleep at night and are, therefore, unrefreshed in the morning. They also cause build-up of fat around the waist which, in itself, is a health red flag linked to diabetes and other long-term conditions. I have seen thirty year-old lawyers with unbelievably high blood pressure and stroke risk. This is serious stuff and not to be taken lightly. We also know the dangers of adrenaline, which are linked to addiction. There is a reason substance abuse is high in the legal profession and not just around alcohol.
What can firms do to manage stress better?
A good employer can, and should, pay attention to the risks and should, at the very least, assess the risk. How many employers ask employees in their annual appraisal process how stressed they are? Surely that would be an excellent way to test the stress temperature? Or are employers afraid to ask because once they are on notice of an issue there might be a legal liability? It’s a tricky issue but one that is not going away any time soon and one which good employers are taking notice of. The only way forward is prevention and support. Controlling and limiting, or even tracking, working hours would be a start too!
The work being done in organisations like Santander should be a model for all employers. I have seen first-hand the work that is done around stress and ill-health and have nothing but praise for what Dave Moore, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing is leading. The people on his team genuinely care about making work a healthier place and looking after the whole person. You can read the HSE case study on the excellent work being done, which includes talking people down when they are suicidal and offering support for non-work issues, such as divorce and debt. Santander’s approach is, in my opinion, the right one – looking after the whole person.
A 2012 survey of the law profession by LawCare revealed that more than 50% of the profession felt stressed and that 19% were suffering from clinical depression. That is one fifth of the profession suffering from (mostly) avoidable and preventable mental ill health. Employers can also do more to help people who manage long-term mental health conditions, which are perfectly manageable and do not cause increased absence from work. Now and then I do hear encouraging stories of employers doing the right thing in this arena. But they are still too few and far between.
In 2013, the Law Society interviewed 2,226 solicitors about stress at work and, shockingly, 95% said their stress was extreme or severe. Worryingly, in 2014, 36% of stressed-out calls to LawCare were from lawyers below 5PQE, indicating that the future of the profession is already stressed before reaching the higher echelons. That is not much of a succession plan.
Of course, a complication of stress-related illness is that there is a stigma attached to it, which prevents many people seeking the kind of help they need before the issue becomes serious. Lots of awareness campaigns are underway (Time to Change, Black Dog, See Me (Scotland), the MHF’s Mental Health Awareness Week), but I do not see the results of the anti-stigma campaigns translating into improvements on the ground. Perhaps it is too early to tell but didlaw, which specialises in disability discrimination around mental health and work-related stress claims, is busier than ever.
I do not believe that lawyers are intrinsically more prone to stress than other professions, but I do think there are a number of issues specific to the legal sector which exacerbate the problem. I’ve alluded to the old guard and the perception that mental illness is a weakness. It is not a weakness: depression is a form of brain damage which reduces the volume of the hippocampus in the brain, which controls memory and emotion.
There are perfectly intelligent professionals in the legal sector who doubt that depression, as a medical condition, even exists. Yes, that’s right, that level of Neanderthal thinking still persists. I find myself explaining it often in my daily contact with employers and other lawyers. It is widely under-appreciated and misunderstood.I even had a client who was disciplined for not reporting into work following a coma induced by a suicide attempt. It makes me scratch my head that there can be that severe a lack of understanding and appreciation of mental illness. Probably the best book I know on understanding depression is Dr Tim Cantopher’s Depression: The Curse of the Strong. It should be required reading for anyone with management responsibility for human beings.
Another factor that makes law a stressful profession is that many firms give little control to junior lawyers, with partners taking credit for the work done by others. That kind of unfairness is not conducive to good mental health. Then, there’s the ‘death-by-billable hour scenario’ which, in itself, is the worst Catch-22 ever: you meet the targets, your targets go up. You don’t meet your targets, you feel under threat. You can be doing a great job marketing the firm and building a profile, but you do not get rewarded for it. This kind of frustration causes unhappiness and can be mentally unhealthy.
I feel that the profession is lagging behind modern ways to work. Many lawyers still do not have the freedom to work from home or remotely: why is that? Most of our work requires us to spend (long) hours in front of a computer or on the telephone. The work lends itself perfectly to flexible working and yet most firms will only make a nod to flexibility, offering maybe one day a week at home. Letting lawyers be grown-ups who manage themselves, their workloads, their output and their deadlines might be a head start to promoting an environment of trust where everyone can flourish.
A healthy environment starts with eliminating unnecessary stressors, including excessive hours and managing clients’ expectations around what are safe and healthy working hours. Allowing partners who never see their children and rarely go home at night to dictate an unhealthy work pattern is making a rod for the backs of all lawyers. The way we work as a team at didlaw is testament to how working can be healthy: credit is given, trust is created, flexibility is an intrinsic part of our environment. Above all, if anyone is stressed, it will be noticed and we will let off steam together.
Curiously, many of the most inherently stressful jobs are the ones with the lowest levels of reported stress: the Fire Service, ambulance workers, A&E staff in hospitals. Is it because it is acknowledged that stress is part of the job and, therefore, that it is OK to say you are stressed and talk about it? I have to think it is. So, the sooner lawyers feel that they can openly vent about stress and get it out there, the healthier the profession will be.