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Lawyers reported declining rates of mental wellbeing and have struggled to focus amid extended lockdowns, according to a recent survey conducted by Australian lawyer Amelia Schubach.

In a sample of 440 lawyers working around Australia, with 82 per cent responding from locked-down areas when surveyed in mid-September, the average mental wellbeing rating reported was 3.82 out of 10. This was a decline from 5.25 when the same survey was carried out in May last year.

Almost all – 93 per cent – respondents said they had been struggling to focus more than usual, which was up from 73 per cent last year. Sixty-three per cent said they were experiencing disrupted sleep. General productivity was, on average, reported at 40 per cent of usual levels.

Schubach, who is Community and Pro Bono Manager at national firm Hamilton Locke, said it was likely the “novelty” of lockdowns and working from home had worn off, and many lawyers were feeling fatigued by the drawn-out pandemic.

“We might be better equipped to work from home, having mastered Microsoft Teams and purchased the game-changing second screen, but somehow, this time is harder,” she said, noting that “the rest of the world has moved on”.

“Maintaining boundaries between work and non-work life is the biggest challenge. Both pressures intrinsic to the legal profession and the COVID-19 induced working circumstances have blurred the temporal, spatial and psychological separation between work and non-work life, generating prolonged periods of stress with little or no reprieve. This has an insidious effect on our cognitive abilities and bodies and this is the ‘shadow pandemic’ many are experiencing.”

The survey found constricted life-space imposed by lockdowns and working from home full-time could make it difficult for lawyers to maintain boundaries between home and work lives. Although more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of respondents said they had a dedicated workspace, competing priorities in lockdown, such as caregiving duties, made it difficult for lawyers to focus.

Schubach noted that many of the challenges reported were circumstantial and were likely to diminish as states like NSW begin to emerge from harsh lockdown restrictions this month. However, she warned lawyers were susceptible to mental health concerns beyond the pandemic.

“Even after 19 months’ coverage of the mental health impact of COVID-19, 54 per cent of respondents feel they cannot talk to someone at their workplace about their mental health,” she said.

“One in two do not feel their workplace is providing enough mental health support, despite 75 per cent of respondents having access to an Employee Assistance Program, and workplaces offering time off  and mental health education. This means more needs to be done.”

The Law Society of NSW’s Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS) connects NSW solicitors to confidential, psychological support. Call the Solicitor Outreach Service on 1800 592 296 for access to up to three psychological sessions per financial year, paid for by the Law Society of NSW, and 24/7 telephone counselling with a psychologist if you are in crisis or distress.

If you or someone else’s life is in danger, phone 000 immediately.