Work Hard – Stress Harder: Understanding the experience of stress among senior lawyers in Hong Kong.
The legal profession is seen as a robust and optimistic occupation where hard work pays off (5). One interesting question is what is the payoff? If one looks beyond the cash renumeration, there are other costs that have not been factored including costs to physical and mental health?
Being a lawyer is stressful (1). Protectivity research in 2019 suggests that 63% of lawyers report that they experience stress on a daily frequency. Academic research suggests that lawyers are exposed to high levels of occupational stress including role conflict, role overload, too much work, role ambiguity, or negative company politics, and feeling overly responsible for the work of others with heavy mental health consequences including alcohol misuse, depression and daily tension (2).
The team at RED DOOR wanted to explore the experience of lawyers in Hong Kong since this has been under explored. Working in Hong Kong is stressful for many occupations, and it would make sense that lawyers in HK experience stress, but this has not been assessed, nor has the impact of this stress, and the components of this stress been well explored. Understanding the experience of stress among lawyers in Hong Kong has significant impact on training for lawyers, senior management within law firms, and human resource manager of senior law personnel, and on the mental health protection of professionals in high stress occupations.
Details of the methodology is attached at the end. In essence we summarised the experience of 30 senior lawyers in Hong Kong. Over ¾ of these lawyers were partners at their firms. They represent 21 international law firms in Hong Kong.
Insane work hours.
Hong Kong can lay claim to the #1 workaholic city in the world (3) with an average of 50.1 hours a week when it was compared to another 70 other international cities. Comparing this to the average number of work hours a week within OECD (4) countries (of 33.5 hours a week), Hong Kongers work an additional 16 hours a week.
Against this backdrop of excessive work hours, we explored the average work hours of HK lawyers. Among our benchmark survey the average work hours per week was over 55 hours a week. One ¼ of our lawyers worked less than 50 hours a week, and ¾ worked an average of more than 50 hours a week. Only one person worked less than 40 hours a week, but this was still 38 hours a week, so still more than the OECD average. What’s more is that due to a minor methodological error, we may have minimised the average hours a week. Our team made a rookie mistake in this benchmark survey. We set the maximum hours at 65+ hours a week. Thirteen percent of our respondents ticked the maximum number of hours. This means that our calculation of average hours was possibly less than the real numbers worked.
This means that lawyers work more than 250 hours more than their workaholic HK colleagues.
Whilst there is a common perception that working more hours means achieving more work, but research challenges this association. There are significant research and articles suggesting that overworking, beyond 8-10 hours a day, is not associated with heightened productivity (5). In the legal profession these long hours may not make sense from a perspective of productivity, however since lawyer hours translate directly to client billing hours, there may be competing interests with lawyer’s mental health suffering as a consequence.
The experience of stress among HK lawyers.
In addition to working extremely long hours there are some other significant findings from the RED DOOR Benchmark research.
In addition to working extremely long hours there are some other significant findings regarding the experience of work-related stress from the RED DOOR Benchmark research.
- 1/3 of HK lawyers report they are not confident to manage the stress that they are under.
- 1/3 of HK lawyers report unsatisfactory or poor work-life balance.
- 50% of lawyers in HK say that they find completing their workload challenging or very challenging.
- Over 46% are stressed over the content and weight of their work.
- 1/3 of HK lawyers express stress over politics in the workplace.
- 23% of the lawyers surveyed say that they don’t have a supportive person to talk to when they feel overwhelmed or stressed.
- 1/3 of HK lawyers express that they do no not have a positive career path
- 23% are stressed over their role at work
- 20% of our lawyers are stressed due to their boss
- 1/3 do not use up their entire leave entitlement.
Therefore, we feel comfortable surmising that HK lawyers are under quite a considerable amount of stress.
What is contributing to HK lawyers’ experience of stress?
Long hours certainly contribute to stress. A positive correlation (0,55) indicates that as hours increase, experience of stress increases.
Confidence to deal with stress seems to be correlated (0.53) with positive expression of management of the experience of stress. This echoes other research on the perception of stress. Yale psychologist Alia Crum (6) assessing banking employees found that those individuals who could see stress as a positive challenge that enhanced their lives and they could conquer helped people experience fewer negative impact from stress.
A positive work environment – which we said was comprised of having an open culture, access to CSR programmes, autonomy of employees, encouraging use of leave, flexibility of work hours when required, an open and inclusive atmosphere, fair and transparent financial remuneration and other non-financial rewards – was also associated with better experience of stress, and vice versa. More negatively rated workplaces were associated with higher experience of stress.
Limited sleep is associated with stronger experience of stress. Ten percent of our lawyers sleep less than 5 hours a night. An additional 43.3% sleep between 5 to 7 hours. Given the US National Institute of Health recommendation of 7-9 hours a night sleep for adults, more than half of our lawyers capture inadequate rest every night. Most people need adequate (7-9 hours) sleep in order to maintain performance and productivity (5) and consistently having less than this can be a risk to their mental health (7).
One particularly concerning suggestion is that those who have no person to speak with when they feel stressed or overwhelmed and its association to the expression of stress. Twenty-three percent, nearly ¼ of our lawyers, say they do not have this person. Of those lawyers, 83% experience higher levels of stress than other lawyers in our survey. This has a major impact in planning how we can best manage stress. Talking to someone helps. As a counsellor, I would also advise, talking to someone who is qualified to respond to your experience of stress and other co-morbid experiences (depression, anger, isolation) is heavily recommended.
Lawyers were also asked to express how frequently they felt some concerning other emotional experiences. Considerable lawyers experience other psychological feelings and behaviour, regardless of their experience of stress. Thirty percent say that they feel regularly or frequently depressed. Twenty percent withdraw from social situations or feel isolated. Twenty percent express troubles with anger. Ten percent say that they cry regularly or frequently. So, in addition to stress, many lawyers are experiencing emotions that cause them distress.
Engaging in negative behaviours. Our lawyers were provided with a range of positive and negative practices and asked to rate them in terms of the frequency in which they engaged in those behaviours. When these behaviours were divided into their clear negative or positive possible contributions or reactions to stress, and correlated to their experience of stress, we found that performing negative behaviours is correlated with negative reported experience of stress. This is stronger for our male lawyers than female (0.47 correlation). The most common negative behaviours that lawyers report that they engage in include: eating junk food (36.6%); drinking more than 2 drinks a day (30%); argue with your romantic partner (26.6); argue with their kids (20%); skip meals (20%); and have a cry (16.7).
Poor responses to stress. When asked how they respond we gave our lawyers a selection of ways to deal with stress. Many indicated some poor stress management responses as their most common behaviours: forty-three percent reported they would reach for a drink; twenty-three percent said they would reach for something to eat; ten percent said they would shout at the people around them; and ten percent said they would simply work more.
What do lawyers do well when responding to stress?
When asked how they respond we gave our lawyers a selection of ways to deal with stress. Many indicated positive stress management responses and to be celebrated: Sixty percent exercise regularly; forty-six percent spend time with their family; forty-three percent talk to a colleague; thirty-three percent talk to a friend; thirty percent seek time alone (which could be considered both a positive and negative response); and thirty percent decide it is time to leave the office.
What does this all mean?
What we have learnt from this benchmark survey is that HK lawyers are regularly experiencing stress. We need to be mindful of how we train lawyers to deal with stress and other psychological challenges that arise out of their work hours, work challenges and the behaviours they choose in response to stress. Specific stress management programmes would possibly help. It is important that these are relevant to HK and to the experience of lawyers here. For example, many stress management programmes include training on time management skills. Over 80 percent of our lawyers said that they were good at managing their own time, hence time management training is not required. This would mean that programmes that are not constructed with nuance for lawyers may be another tax on the time of lawyers, who are already working too many hours a week. Specific programmes within individual support requirements may be more effective.
Note: We will conduct a larger scale survey in 2020. If you are interested in participating in the survey or including your specific staff please contact Angela. If you would like to find out more about stress management practice options for yourself or others feel free to contact us at email@example.com
About the Author: Angela Watkins is an experienced qualified counsellor and psychologist working out of the RED DOOR practice in Hong Kong. Angela specialises in the treatment of anxiety, depression, stress management, and career and lifestyle change.
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Methodology: The Experience of stress among senior lawyers in Hong Kong – Benchmark Study. HK lawyers experience of stress. 30 lawyers (17 men, 13 women) from 21 international firms working in HK. Over 76% are partners in the firms they work in. Surveys were completed in June and July 2019. 300 lawyers in Hong Kong were selected and contacted to participate in this research and completed an online survey which assessed experience of stress, sleep, reactions to stress, work place practices, hours worked, and access to support. For further information contact RED DOOR at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Protectivity research 2019
- Hasnain, Nas and Bano, Stress and Well Being of Lawyers 2010.
- UBS report on Cost of Living 2018
- The OECD Better Life Report 2017
- Harvard Business Review article The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, Sarah Green Carmichael, 2015
- Alia Crum (with P Salovey and S Achor) Rethinking Stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response.
- Zhai, Zhang and Zhang – sleep duration and depression among adults: a meta-analysis. 2015