Mental health at work

Mental ill-health is not a minor problem – neither in Australia nor in the legal profession. Data from the last National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing shows that almost half (45%) of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85  are estimated to experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives, including one in five Australians affected in the past 12 months. The most common mental health issues include anxiety (14.4%), depression (6.2%), and substance abuse (5.1%).

According to BeyondBlue, around one in six Australian women will experience depression, and one in three women will experience anxiety during their lifetime. For Australian men, it is estimated that one in eight will experience depression and one in five will deal with anxiety at some stage of their lives. The 2009 landmark study “Courting the Blues”[1] which explored these issues in the Australian legal profession, concluded that the prevalence of depressive symptoms among lawyers was even higher level than in the general population.  

What does this mean for workplaces?

We spend a lot of time at work – interacting with colleagues, clients and our teams; working on tasks and projects; and expanding our skills and knowledge through formal and informal learning opportunities. In this regard, workplaces can act as a protective buffer, increasing our resilience through positive experiences such as important relationships, meaningful work, and both personal and professional growth.

However, workplaces can also be a source of ongoing stress, lowering our sense of wellbeing and reducing our resilience, e.g. when people are exposed to an unrealistically high workload, lack of  clear communication and support, a disrespectful, emotionally cold or high-pressure atmosphere, or destructive workplace behaviours such as bullying and sexual harassment.

In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged between 15-44 years, and more than half of all suicides (54.8%) occurred between the ages 30 and 59 – a key demographic represented in Australian workplaces, including our own profession. It’s important to remember that workplaces can provide another setting for people to get social and emotional help and support.  

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

WorkSafe Queensland defines a mentally healthy workplace as one which:

  • promotes workplace practices that support positive mental health,
  • eliminates and minimises psychological health and safety risks through the identification and assessment of psychosocial hazards,
  • builds the knowledge, skills and capabilities of workers to be resilient and thrive at work,
  • is free of stigma and discrimination, and
  • supports the recovery of workers returning after a physical or psychological injury.

While these kind of workplaces cannot be created without the engagement and commitment of all people involved, leaders have a particular responsibility to use their influence wisely. As a leader, your actions (not just words) will be amplified and you will be seen as a role model by others. We will have a look at positive leadership behaviours and strategies next week to help you build and improve the mental health and wellbeing of the people around you. 

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

Rebecca Niebler is QLS’s Organisational Culture and Support Officer, QLS Solicitor Support (QLS Ethics and Practice Centre)

2 June 2020

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