An article to mark Mental Health Awareness Week: embedding wellbeing into an organisation’s culture will help reduce employee stress and make them more productive, to the benefit of all

At LawCare we have been providing emotional support to legal professionals for 21 years through our free, confidential helpline and peer support network. 

We have visited hundreds of legal workplaces over the years and we have listened to thousands of people in the legal community tell us about the stress, anxiety and depression they are experiencing, which is often caused or exacerbated by a difficult working environment. Lack of support or supervision, an overly critical manager, being undermined after a career break, an unreasonably heavy workload, long hours and sleep deprivation are all very common issues. And last year, calls to our helpline about bullying and harassment at work nearly doubled.

Taking wellbeing seriously

Momentum around mental health and wellbeing in the legal community has been growing rapidly in the last few years, with many firms now rolling out wellbeing initiatives and providing relevant training to staff. Firms need to do their best to create a healthy and happy place to work, not just because it is the right thing to do but because there is a strong proven business case for it. 

Better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. I believe that to really make a difference, law firms need to embed the wellbeing of their workforce into their culture and make staff wellbeing a core objective for the firm, reporting on this to the board or senior management committee in the same way they would report profits. Sharing progress both internally and externally would send a very clear message that wellbeing is taken seriously.

Firms can use feedback to help them measure and monitor staff wellbeing. There are a range of informal and formal mechanisms to do this, such as annual anonymous happiness surveys at the beginning of the year, which can be linked to HR data on staff turnover and the number of employees who have been off sick with mental health or stress-related conditions. A performance review system with a wellbeing element can feed into these data and the results, alongside 360-degree appraisals, can help identify issues within particular teams or departments, and enable targets and KPIs to be set for improvement. This, together with staff focus groups or forums, can help identify what the gaps are and what needs to be put in place to support better staff wellbeing. 

Performance benefits

So why should law firms do this? What is in it for them? 

Happier workforces are more productive and less likely to make mistakes. Stress contributes to raised levels of cortisol and other hormones, which negatively affect the brain’s ability to function and process information. Lawyers experiencing stress, anxiety or depression can find it difficult to concentrate, pay attention to detail or interact with colleagues. 

In addition, regularly getting less than seven hours’ sleep has been shown to have a significant negative impact on performance. Judgment and decision-making skills are often affected by stress, as well as an ability to manage time effectively which can in turn impact on competence. Research from the USA has shown that lawyers with poor mental health have poorer ethical decision-making. Mistakes made by lawyers can be costly to firms and negatively impact their reputation. 

Firms need to hold on to their clients in a very competitive environment, and research shows that happy employees equal happy customers. Happy clients come back for more, and will recommend you to others.

Happier employees cost less money – according to the Health & Safety Executive 12.5 million working days were lost in the UK owing to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016-17.

Law firms have been operating on a model that has been around for well over 100 years, but legal work and culture are changing rapidly. Economic realities, new technologies and ways of working alongside client pressures are colliding with different expectations and working styles of younger lawyers. Power has shifted to clients, the buyers of legal services, who are driving changes in the way firms bill for their time, leading to more fixed fees and consultancy style law firms. The nature of what is considered acceptable behaviour in the workplace is changing too. Firms need to keep pace with these changes if they are to recruit and retain the best talent. 

Law firms that truly value the wellbeing of their people and report on this will be best placed to respond to these changes. Your clients and your staff affect the bottom line and there is no doubt that wellbeing matters to them.


The Author
For more information on what LawCare does, how we can support you in creating a mentally healthy workplace and for additional information, resources and factsheets visit the LawCare website. If you need emotional support call our helpline on 0800 279 6888. Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare
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