Dr. Joseph Sadek is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada and a Mental Health Advisor to the Caribbean and Commonwealth Judicial Institute.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread detrimental effects on mental health and quality of life. It continues to deliver sudden change, uncertainty and stress. Individuals across the globe experienced considerable impacts on their lifestyles and well-being. Recent reports have suggested a rising mental health crisis with significant increase in several mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
The term well-being encompasses both personal wellness and professional wellness, including job satisfaction, engagement and reduced burnout. It is closely linked to quality of life as a broad term comprising domains of physical health, psychological state, social relationships and environment.
In addition to the pandemic, judicial officers generally have the stress of being responsible for the ultimate decisions that significantly impact people’s lives, and they face the stressors of an intellectually demanding job, a high workload and intense media scrutiny. They are also regularly exposed to distressing material and have limited opportunities to interact with colleagues. An Australian survey of the wellbeing of judges and magistrates has indeed revealed that judiciary is at risk of burnout and trauma and that the levels of psychological distress among the judiciary were significantly high .
The ability of courts to fulfil their mission and perform their functions is based on the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary. In large part, the judiciary earns that trust and confidence by faithfully performing its duties; adhering to ethical standards; and effectively carrying out internal oversight, review, and governance responsibilities. If judicial officers fail to pay attention to their well-being, their abilities to effectively perform their duties may be altered. This effect may impact the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary.
Acknowledging the problem of stress and burnout among judicial officers is an important starting point. Well-being of judicial officers is a high priority since it affects them and the public.
There are a variety of dimensions of judicial well-being worthy of assessment, including burnout, engagement, professional fulfilment/satisfaction, fatigue, emotional health/stress and various dimensions of well-being/quality of life. Standardized instruments should be used to assess these areas at regular intervals.
Recent evidence suggests that the leadership behaviours play a critical role in the well-being of the judges and magistrates they lead. Leadership must strive to provide appropriate support, coaching and mentorship to the judicial officers.
Although the drivers of burnout have been defined, the specific way in which they manifest and which dimension is dominant varies by the work area and geographical location. Targeted interventions should be developed and implemented in identified areas. For example, after several COVID-related deaths in one work location, targeted grief and treatment programmes should be offered to all affected staff in that location.
Organizational policies should be developed to promote flexibility and work-life integration. Resources to promote resilience and self-care should be provided to all judicial officers. Resilience training must be offered as part of a broader strategy that demonstrates that the judicial system is also doing its part to address issues in the system and work environment.
As we adjust to the new reality, this call to action will continue to be relevant to the post-pandemic period and will have important impacts on performance and the quality of judicial decision-making.
 See Wellbeing Survey of Australia’s Judiciary Reveals Risk of Distress and Burnout, May 2019, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/wellbeing-survey-of-australia-s-judiciary-reveals-risk-of-distress-and-burnout (last visited on 7 October 2021).