Mental Health and the Legal Workplace

Lawyers may have recently found themselves giving advice to clients about the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It’s not mandatory, but this new standard is beginning to receive attention as a convenient source of best practices for employers who want to create a psychologically healthy (and lawsuit-resistant) workplace.

It is one of the first of its kind in the world, and has been adopted by several high-profile organizations, including Bell Canada, Rogers, Great West Life Insurance, Manulife Financial, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and some of Toronto’s major hospitals.

But are law firms and legal employers planning to use it themselves?

Bill Wilkerson and Michael Wilson pointed out in the final report of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health that the 21st century economy will be based on human brainpower, innovation, and creativity. To unleash the best of this resource, employers are starting to concentrate on protecting “brain health” in the same way that industrial manufacturers aim to ensure workers’ physical health and safety.

Legal work depends on high-performing brainpower. But law is also known as a profession with a mental health problem. Whether we consider it to be a question of chicken (i.e. the law tends to attract those prone to addiction, workaholism, or depression) or egg (i.e. legal workplace culture and behaviour trigger or exacerbate mental health problems), we’ve all heard the stats.

Various sources have posited that lawyers are nearly twice as likely as the average population to develop an addiction, 3.6 times more likely to develop depression, and six times more likely to commit suicide. Some of these statistics are American and quite old, and the Canadian Bar Association recently noted that it has been too expensive to conduct a comprehensive study to verify them, although the suicide statistic appears to come from one of its own studies in 1997.

The provincial law societies and associations have arranged some support and resources for members of the profession, such as the newly revamped Member Assistance Program (MAP) funded by the Law Society of Upper Canada. But there does not appear to be a proactive strategy among legal employers to tackle the profession’s psychological ills.

This is despite the fact that untreated mental illness in legal workplaces can ultimately lead to liability-inducing professional mistakes, disciplinary proceedings, financial troubles, and death, among other consequences. A Canadian Bar Association study found that at least 50% of disciplinary sanctions cases alone involved admitted addiction or psychiatric impairment. Legal employers have a direct interest in prevention measures and the promotion of healthy workplaces.

One law firm has taken on a lead role by publicly endorsing and implementing the new voluntary psychological health standard in its own office. Bernardi Human Resource Law is participating in the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s 3-year pilot study tracking the rollout of the standard in several participating organizations.

The firm’s founder Lauren Bernardi says the pilot study is an exciting experience for the firm, which specializes in employment law and workplace investigations. “It makes us better at what we do, and it makes our culture better too,” she says.

“We were very excited because it gave us the opportunity to test it out as both a law firm and a small business,” she adds. “We’ll be able to give feedback about this process to our clients – what works and what doesn’t.”

The firm’s involvement began in early 2014, and includes monthly phone conferences with the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s experts and the other participating employers to get advice on implementation challenges as they arise. Bernardi says her firm’s culture already emphasized work-life balance and collegiality, but that the standard is giving them new tools, from which she feels all workplaces could benefit.

The standard asks employers to re-think their approach to the organization of work. For example, it suggests that employers undertake a psychological risk assessment of what its workforce does, and implement a mitigation plan, a process Bernardi’s firm has just begun. Among other measures, this requires employers to:

  • consider existing work systems and allow for their redesign
  • assess the physical and psychological demands of tasks on workers
  • assess the level of help and assistance provided when completing tasks
  • provide clear leadership, job roles, and feedback
  • monitor whether work can reasonably be completed in the time assigned
  • review management accountability systems
  • emphasize recruitment, training and promotion practices that create high levels of interpersonal competency.[1]

Bernardi notes that in the course of her work with clients she sees “a lot” of dysfunctional workplaces. She believes the standard could be a boon to employers by making workplaces more productive, since it takes a preventive approach to the types of cultural and interpersonal problems that can interfere with people getting their work done.

As far as lawyers go, Bernardi’s opinion is that some aspects of legal work culture can create barriers to a healthy approach. She notes that lawyers are often under stress and are trained not to show weakness. “We set impossible standards for ourselves and others,” she says. “There’s this competition to see who’s the busiest.”

She also observes that the high standards of client care may sometimes prevent lawyers from noticing if they’re experiencing symptoms of mental illness or burnout. “I’m not sure we’re good at recognizing it in ourselves because we’re too busy looking after others,” she says.

Bernardi feels the standard will benefit her own workplace on two fronts. “We’re better, more productive lawyers when we’ve got our mental health needs looked after,” she says. “And it just makes us better lawyers for our clients because it helps us understand mental health issues.”

As the nature of legal services changes rapidly, it’s a truism that the legal profession in Canada is facing a great deal of restructuring and disruption. How to develop and support healthy and high-functioning lawyers in the midst of these changes may be the biggest challenge of all.

But if legal practice is on the verge of re-making itself, this could create an opportunity to incorporate psychological best practices into the new model. The question for all legal employers is: if your clients are making this move, shouldn’t you?


Alysia Davies is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer, and a network partner of the Mental Health International consultancy.


[1] Canadian Standards Association, Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – Prevention, Promotion, and Guidance to Staged Implementation, CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013, s. (p. 8) and Clause A.4 (pp. 18-19)


  1. Thanks for bringing attention to the plight of the legal profession and the potential role of the new national standard on psychoogical health and safety in the workplace in addressing it.

  2. A step forward.