14 May 2019

Study raises the bar on judicial stress

Australian study on mental health raises concerns for the judiciary of burnout, alcohol abuse and sleep disorders among judges and magistrates.

A new study in Australia reports that judges and magistrates are under considerable occupational stress, with PTSD, burnout and problematic drinking highlighting issues in the profession and the need for more action to be taken.

“Severity of stress”

The report, first published in the Journal of Judicial Administration, “provides the first empirical data on the nature, prevalence and severity of stress among the Australian judiciary.” Research was led by Carly Schrever, a doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne and judicial wellbeing advisor at the Judicial College of Victoria. A key finding was that judicial officers’ rates of non-specific psychological distress were considerably higher than that of both the general population, and the barrister arm of the legal profession. The figure cited was that 52 per cent of judicial officers indicated some level of non-specific psychological distress, despite reports of moderate-to-severe anxious and depressive symptoms occurring at rates lower than the general legal practitioner population. Three-quarters of judicial officers have “some level” of burnout risk, whilst one-third experience symptoms of secondary traumatic stress at levels “at levels for which formal assessment for PTSD is considered warranted.” Almost one in three use alcohol at a problematic level (30 per cent), which is slightly “better” than lawyers (at 32 per cent), though both groups are well above the 18.8 per cent problematic drinking figure of the general population.

Vicarious trauma

The report also suggests that for most judicial officers “judicial work is highly satisfying and less stressful than legal practice”, with almost two-thirds (62 per cent) indicating their current role is less stressful than their previous careers. More than 76 per cent of respondents had reported high rates of work-related wellbeing and satisfaction “most or almost all of the time.” Ms Schrever said how the research provides “an initial indication that personal wellbeing and satisfaction were prominent feelings alongside the stress of the role”. She added, “It is possible that the sources of fulfilment, accomplishment and purpose within judicial work compensate or offset for the sources of stress, providing for a demanding but meaningful professional life.” Over 83 per cent of judicial officers indicating they had experienced at least one symptom of secondary traumatic stress in the week before completing the survey. Almost half (48 per cent) had trouble sleeping, while 46 per cent had intrusive thoughts about work and nearly one in five respondents “had felt as if they’d relived the traumatic experience of a person who had appeared before them”. The report stated “Given the pivotal role that judicial officers play in our democratic system and the daily impact of their decisions on people’s lives, their psychological health and wellbeing is a vital community concern.” Judicial College of Victoria chief executive Samantha Burchell said, “Ms Schrever’s research reinforces in a rigorous way the absolute need for judicial education to build and support a resilient workforce of judges and magistrates”.

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