The last few weeks have been difficult, but have also brought out the best in us. Children’s drawings of rainbows in windows, thousands of people signing up to be NHS volunteers, neighbours offering to do each other’s shopping, Captain Tom and his unbelievable fundraising efforts, and the weekly #clapforcarers have shown just how much kindness matters in a crisis.
Our positive connections and interactions with people are one of the greatest predictors of our happiness. Our nervous systems respond positively to kindness; helping other people and connecting with them signals feelings of pleasure, safety and warmth to our brain. Humans have evolved to behave in ways that promote the survival of our species, and kindness and looking out for others have been crucial. From around 18 months old, children have a natural instinct to be kind, to pick up something that someone has dropped or to give hugs or kisses to someone who looks sad, for example.
Kindness in the legal workplace?
Kindness is not always seen as a priority in the legal workplace, especially as it contrasts with the cut and thrust and competitive nature of the law. In the past few weeks you may have experienced some kindness from your colleagues, or you may not. At LawCare we have seen two sides of the coin. On the one hand we have heard from legal professionals who have not been allowed to work from home, or have had little to no communication or reassurance from their managers. On the other hand, some of us have had the opportunity to see people we work with in a different light. On Zoom calls, in more casual clothes with their kids, pets, or books on a shelf behind them, they may have seemed more approachable, more human.
Colleagues may have been more understanding about deadlines or times of meetings, asked you how you are coping, or spoken about their own situation at home more. Many organisations have made sure to check on members of staff, or offer virtual opportunities for connection and chat outside of work calls.
We know that many lawyers are not happy – all the research and data produced over the last few years from a range of sources suggests that stress and anxiety are common. Could more kindness in the legal profession be the answer to tackling some of these issues and creating happier workplaces? A study from the journal Emotion showed that kindness in the workplace can create a ripple effect throughout the whole organisation, resulting in a happier workforce, with employees experiencing greater job satisfaction, autonomy and feeling more competent at their jobs.
So what does being kind in the workplace look like, and how can we practise it?
Musician Jon Batiste said: “You’re never too important to be nice to people.” It doesn’t matter how busy or stressed you are: you should always treat colleagues and juniors with respect, by listening, saying please and thank you, sometimes picking up the phone rather than sending emails. Sadly we know at LawCare this just doesn’t happen in some legal workplaces – we often hear from tearful or anxious lawyers who have been shouted at, ignored, undermined or talked down to.
Being respectful in the workplace benefits everyone, and the research supports this. Recent Harvard Business Review research found that respect was the most important quality in a leader, and other research has shown that the most likeable leaders who expressed warmth were also the most effective leaders. Treating people well means they will be more likely to want to work for you and do well for you – and civility is contagious, so if leaders model this behaviour it will filter down to the rest of the organisation, resulting in a happier, healthier, more motivated workforce and better retention rates.
Compassion is a huge part of kindness. Learn how to step into someone else’s shoes for a moment, and understand that everyone is dealing with a wide variety of issues at work and at home that you might know nothing about. These are challenging times, so ask people how they are feeling, how they are coping with their workload, what you can do to help. When something goes wrong, try to find out why in a sensitive way, rather than blaming, and forgive people for their mistakes. We all make them!
Praise and gratitude
Lawyers are often very competitive, detail-focused, and legal work is often about winning or losing. We frequently forget to celebrate our successes and instead focus on what went wrong, even if in many cases it’s very minor. At LawCare we often get calls from legal professionals who are still thinking about a mistake they made years ago. To try and address this we all need to make sure we are giving credit where credit is due, saying “well done” or “thank you” beyond just giving a bonus. This will help people feel truly valued and help prevent workplace-related anxiety building, which can occur when staff aren’t getting positive feedback from their colleagues or managers.
One of the greatest ways to demonstrate kindness is by helping others. In the workplace that might look like volunteering to help with a project to someone who’s overwhelmed, offering to show someone how to do something technical, suggesting a five minute brainstorm to a colleague who seems to be at a dead end, or sometimes it might take the form of mentoring or reaching out to build a connection with someone. We all have unique skills that can help others, and it also benefits us to help other people, making us feel valued and giving us a sense of purpose.
Making kindness a priority in the workplace will make the law a happier and healthier place to work. Kindness is contagious; frequent acts of kindness at every level in the workplace will lead to more engaged and connected staff. Try being friendly, generous or considerate today. Kindness matters more than ever.
LawCare offers a free, confidential emotional support service to all legal professionals, their support staff and families in the UK and Ireland. We’re here to listen, with helpline calls, emails and webchats answered in confidence by trained staff and volunteers who have first-hand experience of working in the law. We also have a network of peer supporters and offer information and training to legal workplaces.
You can check out our new wellbeing hub at www.lawcare.org.uk/wellbeing
Kindness is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, from 18-24 May 2020.
Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare
- Steps to restraining the press
- The CJRS: a developing picture
- COVID-19 and AWI: the Society's blueprint
- Give me liberty or give me an ECHR-compliant lockdown!
- Pensions and the pandemic
- Secure digital signatures: moving forward in a crisis
- PSG: progress during the pandemic
- In-house, from home
- Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal