The annual Mental Health Awareness Week event, held this year in May, is an important reminder for us all to consider our own mental health and that of those around us. This year’s theme was ‘loneliness’ and the harmful impact this can have on mental health if left to continue. Loneliness is not just a problem for those confined to their homes, it is a barrier to mental health in the workplace. Even employees who spend most of the day in an office surrounded by others may be profoundly lonely. According to Mental Health UK, nearly a quarter of respondents to their survey reported that feeling lonely at work had impaired their mental health. Regarding the factors that could prevent the respondents from talking about loneliness at work, 53% agreed that this was due to a “lack of own time or capacity within work hours to discuss this with others”. And half agreed “a culture at work which does not actively encourage people to talk about mental health” and a “feeling that my line manager or senior leader does not have time to meet with me, or won’t be able to support me” were reasons for not discussing the topic at work. In this article, we will look at what law firms can do to protect the mental health of their workforce.
Law Society calls for a change of culture in the legal profession
In anticipation of the Mental Health Awareness Week for 2022, LawCare and the Law Society of England and Wales made a joint statement calling for a change of culture in the legal profession. The announcement draws on the findings of LawCare’s Life in the Law report published in 2021. Lawcare’s research focused on the mental health and well-being of those in the law profession and involved over 1,700 professionals from around the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man. The research was alarming, to say the least, with high levels of burnout reported and nearly 70% of those who responded to the survey confirming they had experienced impaired mental health in the prior year. The research also confirmed that those with the highest burnout scores were in the age range of 26-35 years. The same age group also reported having the highest work intensity, the lowest autonomy levels and the lowest levels of psychological safety.
In 2021, the International Bar Association (IBA) confirmed the scale of the problem in its Mental Well-being in the Legal Profession report, (which surveyed 3,500 legal professionals and 180 legal organisations), verifying that the mental health of those in the legal profession was of international concern. Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said,amongst other things, “Tackling excessive working hours and workloads, as well as ensuring better supervision and support, especially for younger lawyers, is essential”.
What are law firms doing to protect the mental health of team members?
Dealing with the mental health issues raised by the Law Society, LawCare, and the IBA is a strategic imperative for many law firms in the UK and around the world. Ashurst and US group Baker McKenzie were among other law firms introducing new mental health programmes to retain staff. Baker McKenzie, in particular, has started to provide dedicated mental health training for partners and managers. Law firms have introduced a range of initiatives and changes, including:
- “Ramp-up, ramp-down” – encouraging legal practitioners to lawyers to alter their workload before or after an extended absence.
- Mental health taskforces
- Free mental health counselling
- Check-in sessions
- Hiring burnout advisors
Whether such approaches are really going to be enough to protect the mental health of lawyers, solicitors, and others in the legal profession remains unclear. As Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, told the Financial Times, “We need to address the big elephants in the legal mental well-being room, the ingrained culture of long hours, lack of management support and the poor boundaries between work and home, and until we do, not much is going to change”. Hugo Chambers, a recruiter for junior lawyers at Fox Rodney, confirms that legal professionals from high-quality firms are now looking to trade their high salaries for improved working conditions and lower hours expectations. As the IBA found in their 2021 study, some respondents felt that their legal employers were “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk” when it comes to workplace mental health; they pointed out:
“Yoga sessions, fruit baskets and meditation apps are not enough and, if anything, delay the development of a more sustainable and strategic approaches to mental wellbeing within an organisation…Cosmetic activities are not meaningful or lasting solutions: well-meaning is not a substitute for wellbeing”.
Shifting attitudes towards mental health in the legal profession
It is imperative that any embedded notions that those who cannot cope with stress and high levels of work are somehow weak, are dealt with. As the IBA explains, workers must be able to discuss their mental well-being difficulties without being penalised or stigmatised in any way. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that mental wellbeing is openly and freely acknowledged internationally, not just within law firms but across the whole legal profession, including practitioners, law schools, regulatory bodies, the legal press, and third parties working within the sector.
Institutions also need to commit to tangible, sustainable and systemic change according to the IBA, by:
- Continually assessing and improving the effectiveness of mental health strategies
- Making mental health a priority
- Avoiding the temptation to treat improving mental health as a “tick box” exercise
- Providing training starting at the very top, outlining the scale of the problem and the strategic importance of good mental health
- Encouraging an open policy of communication
- Addressing underlying problems – including workplace bullying and harassment and excessive work schedules
- Learn from what other law firms and other organisations are doing well to improve mental health
Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to listen to your workers. As simple as it sounds, by encouraging dialogue from across your organisation and channelling information effectively, you will be able to quickly identify existing and emerging mental health risks and solutions.
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