It’s Time to Talk About Mental Health in Asia's Legal Industry

Mental disorders like depression and anxiety are commonplace in Asia. And for those who bear their burden, they can be crippling. But unlike other regions of the world where mental health care is widely accessible, people in Asia often do not get the treatment they desperately need to manage their disorder and live a productive life.

In Japan, suicide is nearing crisis levels as the leading cause of death in men ages 20 to 44 and women ages 15 to 34. Suicides in China account for more than one-quarter of suicides globally. South Korea has the 10th highest rate of suicide in the world, and in Singapore, suicide is the leading cause of death for those age 10 to 29.

A variety of factors are leading to these grim statistics, but one major obstacle to mental health treatment in Asian countries is the cultural attitudes that have persisted for decades. Many Asian societies still stigmatize and marginalize those suffering from mental illness.

It may surprise some, but even in a global financial center like Singapore, discrimination is strong against those suffering from mental illness. A 2017 study in Singapore found that more than 5 in 10 people are not willing to live with or nearby, or work with, a person with a mental health condition; 5 in 10 people believe that those with mental health conditions should not be given any responsibility; and 6 in 10 people believe that mental health conditions are caused by a lack of self-discipline and willpower.

In the Asian legal markets, mental health remains the proverbial “elephant in the room.” For expatriates from places such as the U.S. or the U.K., this realization can be jarring. In my work as a legal recruiter based in Asia, I have seen lateral hires coming from Western countries who are often shocked by the lack of support for employees’ mental and emotional health.

The “why” driving the lack of awareness around mental health in Asia is complex, but here are a few contributing factors:

  1. People are a commodity. With a fast growing and highly competitive business environment, companies in Asia are focused on making money, and people are viewed as dispensable. If one person leaves, there is always a replacement. Lawyers are not immune to these commercial dynamics.
  2. A mental health issue is seen as a sign of weakness and loss of face. In many business environments, individuals are encouraged to prove they are able and competent, so any signs of weakness are to be avoided. For men, this pressure is likely intensified, as they are encouraged to “man up.” Adding to this is the importance of saving face, which is seen not just as a reflection on the individual but also on that individual’s family and its social status. Consequently, professionals feel pressured to keep their depression or mental health issues a secret for fear that they will be criticized, ostracized or passed up for a promotion or greater work responsibilities.
  3. Mental health is misunderstood. There are lingering stereotypes of mental health in Asia, including the notion that depression simply means sadness, or that people who struggle with mental health challenges are “crazy” or “dangerous.” Most people are not able to properly identify mental health symptoms and, as a result, most do not seek timely help. Those suffering from a mental health condition in turn try to handle the issue themselves (often with alcohol or other substance) or convince themselves that they do not have a problem.
  4. The workplace is ultracompetitive. Law firms and corporate environments in Asia are under immense pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.” Status and achievement are highly important. Lawyers struggling with mental health issues may worry, “Will my boss look at me differently? Will they not assign me work? Will they ask too many questions? Will everyone talk about me?” The culture still dictates that you can only take time off in a life-or-death emergency. In addition, if workers need a day to de-stress or manage their mental health, they are often asked for proof, such as a medical certificate. There is less respect for employee privacy, and many do not trust their employees’ ability to do the right thing in these matters.
  5. There is a lack of trust in management. Popular perception is that company leaders do not know how to deal with mental health problems, because they do not talk about it themselves. Employees may be reticent to discuss their problems for fear that they will be unfairly penalized when vying for promotion or to be put on special deals or projects. And while HR managers are typically receptive to these discussions, lawyers worry that anything they say will be put “on the record.”
  6. There is little support infrastructure. Accessible mental health providers in Asia are few and far between. The handful of organizations that address mental health are sorely underfunded and understaffed and are not widely known among corporate professionals. It is up to employers to take the first step to ensure their employees have the proper resources.

What are the consequences?

The stigmatization of mental health issues and the harsh corporate culture in Asia can have severe consequences for lateral hires from outside of Asia and for the many local lawyers who have not experienced any other kind of workplace. Attorneys who struggle with their mental health may be unable to confide in friends, family members or colleagues and have nowhere to turn for professional help.

This lack of psychological and emotional support is highly detrimental to their own personal well-being and to their productivity as lawyers. It’s also damaging for companies. Employees’ mental health struggles can cause a dramatic drop in a firm’s overall productivity and have a negative impact on its bottom line.

Things are changing, but not fast enough.

I have seen half-hearted employer programs and efforts take shape but not a lot that make a significant dent in these mental health challenges. A number of multinational companies with offices in Asia are putting more emphasis on creating an inclusive and mental health-friendly workplace since they see how it can improve morale and productivity. Some law firms have implemented “well-being” programs that are difficult to measure other than through employee surveys. While there have been some conversations around mental health in the legal and corporate environments, too little action has been taken to date.

As a recruiter, I can tell you that the Asian legal market is thriving, offering countless opportunities for job-seekers, which makes it all the more important to advance the conversation around mental health in this key legal market.

While recruiters are by no means mental health experts, we’re in a strong position to spark important conversations about employee mental health. The more we raise mental health challenges in the workplace, the more we’ll normalize them. Together, we can make Asia a more supportive, nurturing and desirable place for lawyers to work.

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