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Time to focus on mental health and wellbeing in the legal industry

Tracy Foley Tracy,Head of HR - Walker Morris,

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a greater focus on the importance of mental health and how employers can help to manage this within their business to support their workforce more effectively. This has kick started long-overdue conversations about the impact working environments can have on mental health and, in some cases, has resulted in employers taking more time to communicate with their team members and embracing their ideas related to returning to the workplace post-pandemic and hybrid-working arrangements. When done properly, this can be beneficial to the whole business by improving productivity, enhancing job satisfaction amongst the team, and creating a happier workforce.

The legal sector in particular has a reputation for industry-wide pressures such as long and anti-social hours, quick turnarounds, and the general high stress nature of the job. LawCare, a charity that works with those in the legal profession, states that the most common reason people call their hotline is because of work-related stress[1] . A recent study by the charity also showed that on average participants scored 42.2 on the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory, which corresponds to ‘high risk of burnout’[2].

A new report published by the International Bar Association (IBA) has revealed that over half (54%) of young lawyers want to or are thinking about leaving the company they work for and one in five (20%) of those surveyed were thinking about leaving the profession all together[3]. The main reasons stated in the report were a lack of work-life balance, which is a concern for more than 60 percent of young lawyers as well as the failure to address toxic workplace cultures, and that flexible working is key to the long-term continuity of the profession. The report also revealed that solicitors are more likely to cite work-life balance and mental health issues than their in-house counterparts.

Historically, legal professionals have deemed that it may have been seen as a sign of weakness to speak out about any struggles with their role, and there can often still be worry that speaking up could cause reputational damage, painting individuals as someone who cannot cope under pressure. Part of this pressure comes from the perceptions of what makes a good lawyer and what a partner should “look like”. We need to change that because the perception is often wrong. We recently ran a very open and honest workshop with one of our corporate partners, talking about his disabilities and his own mental health challenges relating to his disabilities in the workplace.

These open and honest conversations will play a key role in breaking down the often-unrealistic expectation of what a partner should look like so that lawyers coming through the ranks (a) stop putting too much pressure on themselves and (b) talk to us if and when they are struggling.  The message we want young lawyers to hear is that everyone is different and will have their own struggles at different times in their lives – this is part of being human and does not preclude anyone from having a successful legal career. Law firms are made up of people and it is therefore crucial for law firms to foster supportive and caring cultures that celebrate individuality and allow people to grow in their own way. Going forward, it is vital that the legal sector, as well as wider society, recognises that good mental health is just as important as physical health.

At Walker Morris, we have launched a number of initiatives to support our employees’ health and wellbeing. We approach mental health topics within our teams by encouraging team members to open up and to talk. We also ran a campaign encouraging colleagues to think about “asking twice”. Instead of just asking how someone was, it was to ask again, “how are you really”. Talking and sharing was vital to removing the stigma, and in some ways the pandemic forcing working from home helped to remove that, as everyone was put into a high-pressure situation they had not been through before and had to find new coping mechanisms.

Implementing mental health first aiders within the workplace can also be beneficial in supporting the wellbeing of employees as they can be trained to spot the first signs of mental health challenges and understand how to help reduce and manage the stress levels of the workers in their team. Such individuals should check-in with all employees across the business on a regular basis.

Aiming to promote a healthy work life balance and positively impact our people’s wellbeing, in November last year Walker Morris also introduced an industry-leading sabbatical scheme enabling all of our solicitors from Associate to Director level with more than two years of service the opportunity for up to four weeks paid leave in addition to their annual holiday entitlement. We want to tackle issues in the industry relating to burnout and unattainable hours head on, to help give our lawyers a more sustainable, long-term career. We have been especially keen to understand our employees’ working preferences over the last couple of years so that we may continue to develop a culture that provides valuable careers whilst keeping in mind our employees’ health and wellbeing.

Employers looking for guidance on supporting workforces as many businesses return to their workplaces can visit the Walker Morris Future World of Work resource page. From here, you can learn more about the research project that Walker Morris conducted with Leeds University Business School, looking at the need for boundaries between work and home life, the right to disconnect, the impacts of home working on productivity, and the importance of an enhanced focus on mental health and wellbeing.

[1] LawCare 2020 figures: Sharp increase in legal professionals seeking help for anxiety | LawCare

[2] lawcare-lifeinthelaw-v6-final.pdf

[3] New IBA report reveals significant numbers of young lawyers want to leave their current job | International Bar Association (ibanet.org)

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