The factors that predict mental health concerns, risky drinking, leaving the profession
Recent survey of 3,343 people sheds light on factors and predictors
Patrick Krill, J.D., and Justin Anker, M.D., with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota recently released the results of a survey taken after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They examined workplace factors for and predictors of mental health distress, risky drinking, and anxiety. They randomly sampled members of the California Lawyers Association and the DC Bar. A total of 3,343 people completed the survey, yielding a final sample size of 2,864 employed, practicing lawyers. Here are some key findings.
Factors raising stress levels
Over-commitment at work, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and being a newer lawyer was associated with higher stress levels. Women lawyers who reported over-commitment at work were more likely to report moderate or severe stress. Lawyers who reported a rise in stress due to the pandemic were four times more likely to rate their stress level as moderate or severe. Younger lawyers were two to four times more likely to report moderate or high stress.
A little over 20% of women and 17% of men reported depression. The survey found that 12% of male lawyers and 14% of female lawyers reported mild levels of depression while 4% of male lawyers and 5% of female lawyers reported moderate depression. In addition, 1.5% of both male and female lawyers reported severe depression.
Women lawyers reported slightly higher levels of anxiety than their male counterparts. In total, 34% of women and 30% of men reported mild anxiety while 14% of women and 12% of male lawyers reported moderate anxiety, and 8% of women and 6.5% of men reported severe anxiety.
Participants completed the AUDIT-C, which measures frequency and volume of alcohol use. Of those surveyed, 80% identified themselves as current drinkers, 10% as lifetime abstainers, and 7% former drinkers. The 80% of lawyers identifying themselves as current drinkers was greater than the general U.S. population, where 55% reported drinking in the past month and 70% in the past year. Female lawyers were more likely to be lifetime abstainers from substances other than alcohol at 81% compared to male attorneys at 73%.
A significantly higher proportion of women lawyers engaged in risky drinking. In total, 56% of women reported risky drinking compared to 46% of men. In addition, 34% of women reported hazardous drinking versus 25% of men.
Factors that seem to impact substance use included workplace permissiveness toward alcohol and the impact of the pandemic. Women with high work permissiveness toward alcohol were 1.3 times more likely to report risky drinking. Male lawyers who reported increased drinking due to the pandemic were four times more likely to be drinking at hazardous levels; women who reported doing so were seven times more likely. The authors noted that increased drinking during COVID might be an early warning sign. Drinking to cope with negative emotions and anxiety can increase the risk of alcohol dependence.
Considering leaving the profession
When it comes to leaving the profession, 25% of woman lawyers and 17% of male lawyers reported they were currently considering it due to mental health, burnout, or stress. Top predictors of leaving the profession were over commitment for men and work-family conflict for women. Women scored higher on scales measuring work over-commitment, effort-reward imbalance, and work-family conflict than their male colleagues. Women with high work-family conflict were 4.5 times more likely to consider leaving the profession, and women with increased anxiety during the pandemic were 1.6 times more likely.
Chances for promotion
Lawyers who saw their prospects of promotion as good were less likely to leave or think about leaving their profession. Men perceived a greater likelihood of promotion than women. For women, perceived likelihood of promotion buffered stress levels. Female lawyers with perceived likelihood of promotion were two times less likely to have moderate or severe stress.
Need extra support? The Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program is a free, confidential counseling program that serves Missouri Bar members, law students and their families. Contact us at 1-800-688-7859. We’re here to help.
- Anker, Justin, MD and Krill, Patrick, JD. “Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition among Licensed Attorneys,” PLOS ONE,16(5), May 12, 2021.