What is it about the legal industry that makes it so depressing? Well, it is not the work – but it could be exhaustion mixed with a lack of control about how much work they can handle and a shortage of appreciation from their bosses.

Psychologist and a scientist in behavioural neurogenetics, Bob Murray, says human beings are designed to work as little as 10 hours per week.

“If we work for more than 10 hours a week, it becomes stress,” he told a recent seminar in Sydney.

While that may seem an extreme position at first glance, it is important to understand what Professor Murray means by “work”.

“Work” is the stuff we do that is a grind. It is, perhaps, the administrative work that takes us away from the tasks that are meaningful or enjoyable.

“Work means not necessarily enjoying yourself, not necessarily relating. Human beings are relationship-forming animals. We are driven to surround ourselves with a network of supportive relationships and we can work hard and long… providing that we do it in the company of other people that we actually like, and that we enjoy the process of doing things with them.

“It’s not a question of how many hours you work. It’s whether you enjoy the process of doing that work. And whether you enjoy the people that you do it with”.

Murray said people come to work to be part of a tribe and to learn.

“So people in law firms are willing to stay there for long hours, providing they’re enjoying the process of learning what they’re doing,” he said.

Murray says 30 percent of all lawyers think about suicide once a year and 40 percent are clinically depressed.

A national survey of almost 1000 lawyers finds that excessive job demands, minimal control over workload and spillover of work commitments into personal life are some of the work-related factors correlated with poorer mental health outcomes.

“Concerns about the structure and culture of legal practice in Australia are also highlighted,” say the authors of the study, Lawyering Stress and Work Culture: An Australian Study, 2012-2013.

He says one relatively simple thing that employers and managers can do is to praise their people. However, only around 5 percent of people get praised once a day.

Praise is powerful because of its effect on the “feel good” chemicals we produce, like dopamine, which helps our brains work faster, smarter, and more creatively.

However, poorly given praise tends to antagonise people. Murray says there are three elements to effective praise:

What: The giver has to be specific about what they are praising. A generic “well-done team” can have the opposite effect.

How: This is the effort or the way someone has gone about something. It is the kind of praise you may give a child who comes last in a race, but stuck it out to the end, gave it their best effort and didn’t let the team down. It is not necessarily tied to success, but encourages and rewards the right behaviours.

Who: This is praise for the relationship. “ I really enjoy working with you. It’s great to have you as part of you of my team.” Murray says this kind of praise is less used in law firms than other kinds – but is the most powerful.

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.