When you think of workplace health and safety, you probably think of industrial accidents involving heavy machinery, causing physical injuries at construction sites and other high-risk workplaces. Mental health risks may not immediately come to mind. However, increased awareness of the mental health impacts of unsafe work practices over the past decade, together with the prolonged periods of isolation and decreased social interaction necessitated by COVID-19 social distancing measures, have forced us all to acknowledge and address the issue of mental health in all workplaces, especially law practices, given the over-representation of lawyers in depression and anxiety diagnoses. COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work, meaning many have been left feeling anxious about the future.
In early 2020, the Black Dog Institute published a report titled ‘Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19: The Australian context’ which identified the following segments of the population as having an increased risk of long-lasting mental health issues as a result of COVID-19:
- People with pre-existing anxiety disorders and mental health problems;
- Health care workers;
- People placed in quarantine; and
- People who are unemployed and in a casualised workforce.
In 2020, the Law Society of NSW established the Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS) where NSW lawyers are able to access psychological support over the telephone 24/7. Law Society of NSW president, Richard Harvey, acknowledged that the legal profession is ‘far from immune from having its own susceptibility to mental health distress’ and that the decision to commence the SOS program was informed by extensive community feedback. NSW solicitors will also be able to access three sessions a year with a qualified psychologist at no cost, to encourage lawyers to prioritise their mental wellbeing and seek help when they are struggling.
Any discussion on mental health would be incomplete without addressing the issues of sexual harassment and bullying, from which the legal profession is certainly not immune. A 2019 report by the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner found that 61% of female respondents and 10% of male respondents from the legal services industry reported being sexually harassed. Further, 81% of respondents who stated that they had experienced sexual harassment also said that they did not report it. Both bullying and sexual harassment are highly destructive and can have a huge impact on one’s wellbeing and mental health. In already such a vulnerable and uncertain time in our lives, it’s more important than ever to speak up against toxic workplace behaviours and offer support to those in your team.
For tips about creating a mentally healthy workplace, check out Episode 2 of Hearsay with Michael Tooma, pre-eminent work health and safety lawyer and partner at Clyde & Co.