Nicola Johnstone: Get your head round the need to protect mental health

Nicola Johnstone is a Research Executive, Law Society of Scotland
Nicola Johnstone is a Research Executive, Law Society of Scotland
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It is important that we all look after our mental health, just as we would our physical health.

Everyone will feel the normal stresses linked to events in our private and professional lives. I’m sure we are all guilty of sending ‘just one more email’ at the end of the working day or during the commute home. Some would argue this is to be expected of a modern professional – but when does being busy impact on our mental health?

One in three of us will be affected by a mental health problem each year, our own or someone close to us, and one in three GP appointments relate to a mental health problem. We need to take our mental health seriously.

We spend a significant portion of our week in the workplace, so an important question is how does mental ill-health affect us at work? Do you think you could talk openly about your mental health? The answer may be ‘no’.

Legal professionals are often high achievers who thrive on the challenges of helping individuals and businesses at critical and challenging times. They can be reluctant to say no to clients and accept the increased workloads. While some pressure can focus our minds and help us meet an important deadline, long hours and a heavy workload can lead to stress and mental health issues in the longer term.

It’s not just workload, but the workplace itself, which can have an impact on our health. A report published last month by the International Bar Association revealed that, of almost 7,000 survey responses from lawyers around the world, approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment. One in three female respondents had been sexually harassed in a workplace context, as had one in 14 male respondents.

Our own research has also shown that Scotland’s legal profession is not immune to this global pattern of bullying and harassment. A fifth of respondents to our 2018 Profile of the Profession survey had at some stage in their career experienced discrimination in the profession. 16 per cent had experienced bullying over the past five years and 3 per cent of respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment.

Our findings also highlighted that 37 per cent of respondents with disabilities were either not provided with, or were too apprehensive to request, a reasonable adjustment at work. With that figure in mind, would you feel comfortable asking for reasonable adjustments to support your mental health in the workplace?

The Scottish legal sector employs highly talented people, supporting around 20,000 jobs. We want people who join the legal profession to have long and fulfilling careers, and to be able to access support when they need it. That’s why we have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment.

We will work with law firms and other employers to promote the benefits of flexible working. This follows our initiatives including promoting our equality and diversity standards for employers and guidance for parents in the profession. In 2018, we launched Lawscot Wellbeing, a dedicated online resource that provides help and guidance for solicitors and employers.

Most recently we have been working in partnership with See Me, Scotland’s national programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination.

It’s discouraging that a See Me survey of Scottish workers in 2015 found that 48 per cent of people think that someone in their work experiencing a mental health problem would be unlikely to disclose it for fear of losing their job. They also found 55 per cent of people think that someone in their work experiencing a mental health problem would be unlikely to disclose it for fear of being moved to another post or passed over for promotion.

With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that many of us choose not to talk about how we feel.

We want to change negative attitudes and behaviour towards those with mental health issues and work to ensure that their human rights are respected and upheld. Through our partnership with See Me, we are encouraging those within the legal sector to be part of a movement for change. It’s our ambition for anyone working in the legal sector to feel confident to speak about how they are feeling and to ask for help if they need it.

We are asking everyone working within Scotland’s legal sector to take part in our survey on mental health. We want to know about current attitudes and behaviours in Scotland’s law firms and in-house legal teams – from trainees, support personnel to managing partners.

This important research, which is the first of its kind on a sector-wide basis in Scotland, will give us a better understanding of attitudes and perceptions around mental health stigma and discrimination in the workplace, both positive and negative, so that we can support employers and employees more effectively.

It all starts by asking ‘would you feel comfortable talking about your mental health at work’? If not, why not and what can we do together to change the working environment for the better?

Nicola Johnstone is a Research Executive, Law Society of Scotland