Why Being a Lawyer Can Seriously Damage Your Health
The legal profession ranks among the worst for wellbeing and health issues
Did you know there is a charity that exclusively supports lawyers suffering from mental health and wellbeing issues? The fact that such a service exists at all is rather telling.
Now in its 24th year, LawCare is an independent charity with a small staff and a network of over 100 volunteers who offer advice and support to lawyers.
Its vision is for a legal community that values good mental health and wellbeing, and where lawyers and others working in the industry can thrive as individuals.
Law is Tough
Sadly, despite their best efforts, they have yet to see this vision come true. Stress, burnout, physical health issues, and alcohol and drug dependency are concerns their helplines hear about from lawyers every day.
Practising law can be hard, but the challenges start even before you qualify.
With competition for training contracts and pupillages being fierce, junior lawyers are under constant pressure to prove themselves from day one.
Once qualified, if you work in private practice, you’re in constant competition with your peers for promotions to senior, manager, director, and partner roles.
If you’re in-house, you can find yourself responsible for everything from company secretarial duties to sales, employment, and procurement contracts, to property and investment negotiations and a myriad of other demands on your time.
Strict deadlines, long hours, frequent conflict, the high risk of failure, and the lack of predictability are just some of the many pressure points that make the legal profession one of the most demanding.
According to the Bellwether Report 2019: Stress in the Legal Profession 66% of solicitors were currently experiencing high levels of stress, and over 3/4 of the profession believes that stress and wellbeing in law is a major issue.
The Impact on your Health
Mental health is rightly a “hot topic” at the moment. But the legal profession as a whole has tended only to pay lip service to the toll working in it takes on many lawyers.
Workplace stress can affect your mood – anything from having more (or more regular) “blue days” through to anxiety and depression.
Sleep issues are common occurrences, either insomnia or difficulty getting out of bed. Chronic stress can lead to burnout, or in some cases breakdown.
On an alarmingly regular basis, I hear my career coaching clients say that they “dread” going to work and that they only have a one-day weekend because Sunday is spent worrying about Monday morning.
Workplace pressure and stress can also play havoc on our physical health. Frequent bouts of cold or flu are a sign of a depressed immune system – a typical physical manifestation of stress and anxiety.
Many lawyers report problems with weight gain or lack of energy, and chronic stress can exacerbate cardiovascular and digestive problems.
Immune complaints such as skin conditions and asthma can become more serious, and stress can have an impact on sexual health and wellbeing, too.
Are any of these symptoms familiar?
Stress affects different people in different ways.
However, in my work advising lawyers how to successfully leave the law for a new career, I’ve noticed there are several symptoms that crop up time and again.
If any of the following are regular occurrences for you, perhaps it’s time to sit back and reflect on whether or not they could be caused by your current working conditions:
- Constant or regular feelings of stress, exhaustion or a depressed mood;
- Issues with sleep, too much or too little;
- Taking longer than usual to recover from minor illnesses, or suffering more often;
- Self-medicating after – or even during – work (alcohol, drugs, food, impulse buying, phone/social media addiction, etc);
- An increase in your negative feelings about work over the last 12 months;
- Relationships at work strained or deteriorating;
- Relationships at home strained or deteriorating because of time spent at work, or the stress and anxiety caused by it.
Time for a Change
Your health is the most important “capital” you have. Nothing is worth damaging it for. I know because I’ve done it!
If you feel your job is starting to affect your physical or emotional wellbeing you MUST do something about it.
Start to try and understand what causes you stress or anxiety. If you’re not sure, seek professional help from an experienced career coach, a therapist or counsellor.
Once you’ve identified the issues, at the very least ask to make changes to your current work practices to alleviate those triggers. This could be requesting more flexible working, asking not to deal with certain case types or clients, or moving departments.
For some people, change in their current role may not be possible.
If being a lawyer in these circumstances is affecting your health then you need to start researching other fields where you could work that don’t have those stress triggers.
Seek advice, have conversations with people in the other careers you’ve discovered, and build a structured plan to leave the law and develop a new future for yourself.
Law is a profession where many thrive, but it’s also one where many suffer – often in silence and to the detriment of their wellbeing and family life.
A pressurised and stressful environment is something that most of us can tolerate for a short period, but that many of us cannot – and should not – tolerate permanently.
Remember, you don’t need to dread going to work, you don’t need to resent your colleagues and clients, and you don’t have to forego your health to stay afloat and progress at work.
If you are struggling with your mental or physical health please don’t suffer alone.
Speak to your boss or HR department.
Talk to friends and family.
Sharing your feelings and challenges can really help, as well as letting you begin the process of assessing whether continuing your career in law is right for you.