Wellbeing survey of Australia’s judiciary reveals risk of distress and burnout

The first survey into the wellbeing of judges and magistrates reveals a judiciary coping well with high stress work, but many show signs of distress and risk of burnout

An Australian-first survey of the wellbeing of judges and magistrates has revealed a judiciary at risk of burnout or trauma from having to constantly deal with high workloads and the harrowing details of serious crimes.

The psychological survey of over 150 judges, magistrates and other judicial officers, found that the judiciary was generally coping well with the stresses of their work, with levels of mental health problems like depression and anxiety similar to the general population, which is well below the rest of the legal profession.

Judicial officers like judges and magistrate are coping with their high stress work, but many report high levels of psychological distress. Picture: Getty Images

But the survey found that a third were experiencing “moderate to severe” symptoms of secondary traumatic stress – the psychological distress people can experience when working with traumatic material and traumatised people.

Indeed, the survey, published in the Journal of Judicial Administration, found that rates of “moderate to high” levels of psychological distress among the judiciary were significantly higher than that among barristers and the general population.

“There isn’t a mental health crisis in the judiciary, but this study has confirmed that there are high rates of distress among judges and magistrates, and that is concerning,” says University of Melbourne PhD candidate Carly Schrever, who carried out the research with in-principle and in-kind support from the Judicial College of Victoria, where she is the Judicial Wellbeing Advisor.

“This is something that courts and governments need to turn their attention to, particularly as the pressures on the system seem to increase in terms of workload and other stressors,’’ she says.

“It’s an unsustainable state of affairs.”

Undertaken as part of her PhD at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Ms Schrever’s research findings are especially urgent given the separate recent deaths by suicide of magistrate Stephen Myall and former magistrate Jacinta Dwyer. Their deaths sparked a national conversation within the judiciary about the need to have more conversations about wellbeing within their profession.

Judges and magistrate constantly deal with the particulars of crimes and people’s traumatic experiences. Picture: Getty Images

“No individual or system can sustain elevated and increasing stress indefinitely without showing signs of functional impairment and distress,” Ms Schrever says.

For the study, which is the first to produce empirical data on stress and well-being among the Australian judiciary, Ms Schrever spent over a year surveying 152 judges, magistrates and other judicial officers from five Australian courts.

In addition she carried out in-depth interviews with 60 of them, to further investigate sources and experiences of stress. The survey comprised a number of validated psychometric tests – including the Maslach Burnout Inventory – General Scale, the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales 21.

Ms Schrever discovered one-third of judges and magistrates were in the “moderate to severe” range for secondary traumatic stress, the level at which it may be advisable to have someone tested for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly 20 per cent reported feeling as if they had relived the traumas of people they saw in the courtroom in the past week.

Nearly half of those surveyed reported having had trouble sleeping in the past week.

Three-quarters of judges and magistrates reported some level of burnout risk, or emotional exhaustion, from their work environment.

Ms Schrever says magistrates have an especially high caseload of sometimes over a hundred matters per day. Many of their cases will deal with intimate partner violence, sexual assault and traumatic traffic accidents. A significant proportion of the criminal cases before the Victorian County Court are sex crimes, and around half of those are sex crimes against children.

Judges and magistrates can find themselves cut off from their barrister friends and colleagues when appointed to the bench. Picture: Getty Images

“Judges and magistrates deal on a daily basis with all the most horrific trauma and adverse events that most of us would hope our lives never involve,” Ms Schrever says. “They see the very worst that humanity does to itself.”

On top of their regular exposure to distressing material, judges and magistrates face the stressors of an intellectually demanding job, a high workload and intense media scrutiny.

“Judicial officers have the additional stress of being responsible for the ultimate decision that significantly impacts people’s lives,” Ms Schrever says. “And everything they do is in public.”

It can also be lonely for judges who have limited opportunities to interact with colleagues. Once appointed to judicial office, their relations with their lawyer friends and colleagues become constrained by the rules of professional proprietary and impartiality.

“When they’re appointed, most of their professional friends are probably practicing lawyers, so those relationships need to change,” Ms Schrever says. “And the nature of the judicial working day means that they go from their chambers to court and back again, with very little opportunity to interact with other judges.

“They’re hearing these cases and making decisions in a state of isolation.”

Despite reporting high levels of stress, Ms Schrever found that judges and magistrates weren’t at any higher risk of mental illness. Indeed, her study found that rates of depressive and anxious symptoms among judicial officers were “dramatically lower” than those reported for lawyers.

Many Australian courts are already adopting strategies to help judicial officers with stress, including regular proactive debriefings. Picture: Shutterstock

And three-quarters of surveyed judges and magistrates reported feeling highly satisfied with their work, saying that they found it less stressful than being a practicing lawyer.

“Though stress is a significant cause of mental health concerns, they don’t completely overlap,” Ms Schrever says. “So judicial stress doesn’t seem to be translating to a widespread mental health problem, unlike the rest of the legal profession where research has consistently shown there is a mental health problem.”

Ms Schrever suggests this could be because judges and magistrates are appointed later in their careers, so they have already survived the rigors of the legal profession and are already particularly suited to it. It could also be because judges and magistrates tend to be middle-aged or older – years when people tend to have more stable mental health.

The research also revealed that while one in three judges and magistrates used alcohol at a “problematic level”, those rates were similar to those reported in the legal profession as a whole. Alcohol use was measured using the World Health Organisation’s Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.

Ms Schrever, who plans to release two more reports based on her findings, hopes that the findings will lead to positive changes for the judiciary. Those changes could take the form of expanding the number judges and magistrates to better spread the workload, providing regular and proactive counselling and debriefing, or addressing certain structural and organisational sources of occupational stress.

Many Australian courts, particularly the Victorian courts, are already implementing a number of programs and strategies directed towards wellbeing, including regular proactive debriefing. The Judicial College of Victoria is an international leader in providing wellbeing professional development for the judiciary, on topics such as trauma informed practice and judicial peer support.

“We have to remember that judicial offers fulfil such an important social and democratic function, so their personal stress is more than a personal concern,” she says.

“They are human beings like all of us, and they are emotionally affected.”

If you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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