The Mediating Role of Work Engagement and Burnout in the Relationship between Job Characteristics and Psychological Distress among Lawyers

Article excerpt

Research carried out with lawyers to date indicates that they are more likely to be affected by psychological distress (e.g. symptoms of depression and anxiety) compared to the general population and to other occupations. Studies undertaken in the United States have consistently shown that lawyers are more than twice as likely as the general population to experience depression (Benjamin, Darling & Sales, 1990; Daicoff, 2004). In addition, lawyers report elevated levels of anxiety when compared to the general population (Beck, Sales & Benjamin, 1995; Daicoff, 2004). This trend does not appear limited to the United States, with recent research indicating that Australian lawyers also suffer from higher than average rates of psychological distress than the general population (Nelk, Loscombe, Medlow & Hickie, 2009).

Three avenues of research have emerged to explore why lawyers suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety. Studies have been undertaken with law students to understand whether the experience of law school impacts on mental health (e.g. Benjamin, Kaszniak, Sales, & Shanfield, 1986; Sheldon & Krieger, 2004). Other research has focused on common personality traits argued to be prevalent among lawyers (such as pessimism, perfectionism and need for achievement) and whether these make lawyers more susceptible to psychological distress (e.g Daicoff, 2004; Elwork, 2007; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Satterfield, Monahan, & Seligman, 1997; Seligman, Verkuil, & Kang, 2005). A third avenue of research has focused on environmental factors such as lawyers' working conditions. This is the focus of the present study.

There is evidence to suggest that job characteristics such as work-family conflict, lack of job control, lack of social support and lack of feedback may impact on job dissatisfaction, a correlate of psychological distress (Daicoff, 2004). For instance, in a study of Chicago lawyers Heinz, Hull, & Harter (1999) found that lawyers who perceived less conflicting career and personal demands and those who could balance these demands were more likely to be satisfied with their job. In addition, Heinz et al. (1999) found that job autonomy was positively related to job satisfaction, with those lawyers who indicated greater freedom in selecting clients and more autonomy over their work being more likely to report high job satisfaction. Research has shown that lawyers who perceived a lack of social support available to them, or reported that their colleagues were unsupportive, were more likely to be dissatisfied with their job (McCann, Russo, & Benjamin, 1997). In addition, the availability and quality of mentoring (including career advice and psychosocial support) from supervisors and colleagues were positively associated with job satisfaction among lawyers (Higgins & Thomas, 2001).

Other aspects of work that may contribute to lawyer dissatisfaction include time pressures, work overload, increasing pressures from employers for more billable hours, lack of respect from superiors and client demands (Daicoff, 2004). In addition, the law firm culture may contribute to a sense of generalised anxiety, with internal politics and the adversarial system of law promoting an environment of hostility, suspicion and cynicism (Elwork & Benjamin, 1995).

This study aims to provide insight into how aspects of lawyers' work can lead to negative psychological outcomes such as burnout and psychological distress as well as positive outcomes such as work engagement. High levels of burnout are associated with increased psychological distress (Shirom, Melamed, Toker, Berliner, & Shapira, 2005), and high levels of work engagement are associated with reduced psychological distress (Hallberg & Schaufeli, 2006). Investigating job characteristics associated with burnout and work engagement can provide insight into those aspects of work which can influence mental health outcomes. …