The concept of a “positive work culture” and the practice of law have not traditionally gone together – with lawyers being notorious for having a poor, at best, work-life balance. The legal profession can be a pressure cooker, taking extreme tolls on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of lawyers, which manifests in high rates of burnout. This burnout has recently been studied in the “National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada,” (the study), published in late 2022, concluded that many Canadian lawyers are experiencing high levels of psychological distress, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic. The symptoms of burnout and anxiety that lawyers face have created an impetus among lawyers and law firms to prioritize overall well-being, to which work-life balance is essential.
Working from home has created an unrealistic expectation of availability and immediacy of response, which exacerbated feelings of stress and exhaustion lawyers had already been experiencing before the pandemic. The lack of access to resources to improve physical and mental health, feelings of social isolation, and “zoom fatigue” were all factors that led to lawyers reporting symptoms of burnout. According to the study, 57% of Canadian legal professionals surveyed reported feelings of psychological distress – estimated at 17% higher than Canadians in other jobs.
As some organizations are mandating return to the office, amidst a continuing mental health crisis, it is important continue to develop and implement programs in support of lawyers’ overall well-being. Support can be offered in a variety of ways but starts with creating a culture of respect and trust, providing support and resources for mental health, promoting work-life balance, and encouraging collaboration and teamwork. In fact, some firms [where] have implemented a “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE). Lawyers do not have to “clock in” rather, they have control over where, when, and how they practice – provided that the output of their work meets the specified goal. While some firms may prefer not to adopt as flexible of a strategy as the ROWE, they can focus on creating team building events and development opportunities that support a cohesive work environment.
In addition to the adoption of new policies and implementing other wellness initiatives, in 2021, Ontario launched the “Right to Disconnect” policy. Employers of companies in Ontario with more than 25 employees now have to establish a policy that outlines employees’ right to disconnect from work-related communications outside of regular working hours. The “Right to Disconnect” policy is the first of its kind in Canada and is an important first step to provide legislated support for employees to take the much-needed time to disconnect.
The results of the study are startling, but it has started an important dialogue about the impact work environments have on mental health in a profession that has been resistant to change. Lawyers are beginning to place greater personal importance on overall well-being by seeking out law firms with positive work cultures. In response to this demand, job boards like “Not Your Average Law Job” have been created to “help lawyers find their happy.” By shifting the focus to quality rather than quantity of work, prioritizing mental health and wellbeing, and promoting work-life balance, lawyers and clients will reap the benefits of the advancements of the legal profession. Perhaps one day, the phrase “positive work culture” and the practice of law will fit together seamlessly.
The National Study on the Health and Wellness Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada was undertaken by a research team at the Université de Sherbrooke led by Dr. Nathalie Cadieux, with funding from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association.