Mental health and wellbeing have emerged as major concerns for businesses and employees alike in recent times, and the legal sector is no exception.
Beyond World Mental Health Day, it is an issue that law firms and people working in law are increasingly paying attention to. The pandemic certainly served to emphasise the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace, and this has had a lasting impact on what lawyers are looking for in their firms. This appears to be particularly true of younger lawyers embarking on a career in private practice. MLA’s recent Gen-Z survey found that mental health and burnout is currently the second biggest challenge facing the legal industry. Clearly, the conversation around mental wellbeing is only getting louder. So, how are firms and the legal sector as a whole responding, and what is actually working?
The legal sector has been quite proactive in addressing concerns about mental health and burnout. We’ve seen many firms launch specific initiatives and introduce benefits targeted at supporting people’s mental wellbeing. This ranges from smaller gestures such as offering subscriptions to apps such as Calm, or offering access to therapy and counselling as part of a benefits package. Some firms are going even further, encouraging their lawyers to allocate billable hours to wellness.
However, whilst these ‘nice to haves’ are indicative that the legal sector is actively participating in the conversation around mental health and taking steps to destigmatise it, they are perhaps limited in actually addressing the mental wellbeing needs of people working in high-intensity working environments, as is often the case in the legal sector.
Establishing a culture
I recently attended the launch event for ‘Don’t Carry it Alone’, a support group for people working in professional services with chronic conditions. Discussions at the event explored, in part, how the mental health challenge can be best approached throughout the professional services sectors, and one of the key ideas we are seeing emerge is centred on how businesses can make the working environment more sustainable.
A broadly agreed factor in instigating lasting and meaningful change in how professional services (including the legal sector) address mental wellbeing is building a culture that better enables people to flag problems. There is no easy or fast answer to achieving this in the legal sector. After all, law firms ultimately exist to service the needs of their clients, and there is a balancing act between ensuring people are supported and ensuring that client needs are met. Moreover, even within a firm, the culture can vary from team to team, and the approach to mental health is likely to vary.
At a firmwide level, then, the goal should perhaps not be to try and set or enforce a specific ethos around mental wellbeing. Rather, it could focus on cultivating a general sense of openness and acceptance that better enables people to express mental health concerns, and allows Partners and senior personnel to adapt this culture to their own style of management. However, establishing this foundational understanding that mental health is to be taken seriously and should not be considered taboo is an important step in tackling the mental health challenge.
Policy and protocols
Another key challenge in addressing mental wellbeing in the legal sector hinges on the practicalities of supporting people. In other words, ensuring that people have a clear answer to ‘what do I do if I feel my mental health declining?’. In order to answer this, firms could first ask themselves what key barriers are likely to be preventing people from seeking support.
For example, if someone is struggling with their mental health and is seeking a solution, it is not always helpful if they need to explain the situation multiple times to their line manager, HR personnel, and potentially multiple Partners on their team. Or, if a person has moved teams within the firm, having to make a new Partner aware of an ongoing condition or situation can be difficult and could potentially exacerbate the problem further. If there is not a clear and refined system in place for people to flag wellbeing issues, which can extend beyond mental health, then this may lead people to feel at a loss as to what proactive steps they can take.
One solution could be to ensure that there are clear-cut and widely understood channels and protocols within the firm to flag and address wellbeing issues. Steps such as establishing a single key point of contact with a senior figure can work well here. Additionally, once a problem is known, firms could factor in how much time away from the office may be needed for that person and incorporate this into their target hours. This is also applicable to new hires who have noted a chronic condition.
Overall, whilst the legal sector has been open to joining the wellbeing conversation, there is arguably still work to be done. It is important to remember that, ultimately, the onus falls on those suffering from a wellbeing issue to raise it. The best way firms can support people is to foster a culture of awareness and acceptance and establish clear protocols for how best they can do this.