The events of the past year have offered us all an opportunity to take stock of what is important and to strive to look after ourselves, and each other. While a focus on wellbeing is not new, the physical distance of colleagues, working in isolation over a prolonged period, has put wellbeing at the core of how a law firm operates.
Addressing wellbeing is not a one-off exercise: it requires putting a framework in place that achieves what is best for colleagues, recognising individual needs, while also considering what is best for clients. This article will explore these considerations, as well as how navigating the return to offices plays into mental health and wellbeing considerations.
Time for a system reset
Out of challenge comes the opportunity to make things better. The legal sector has an opportunity to press the system reset button, and to rebuild our working practices, putting wellbeing at the core of what we do. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that the way in which we work can be adapted, even if change was previously thought to be too difficult or too disruptive.
While a focus on mental health and wellbeing is not new, the circumstances in which we find ourselves are. Imposed distances between colleagues, families and friends, working in isolation over a prolonged period, following rules on everyday things that we previously took for granted – these changes have intensified mental health struggles that existed pre-pandemic, and created new challenges for others too.
While the conversation around mental health has opened up considerably, there is always more we can do, particularly in the workplace. Keeping those conversations going is critical. The more open we are, the more barriers we can break down.
Consideration for mental health and wellbeing has to be part of the conversation every step of the way, particularly as we look at the long-term implications of the pandemic for working life. Last month, the BBC reported that almost all 50 of the UK’s biggest employers had confirmed that their workforce would not be brought back to the office full time. A hybrid approach is being considered by many as a long-term option, but does it work for everyone?
For every colleague that is looking forward to the prospect of returning to the office, there will be another who is wary about the use of shared spaces, whether that is working in an office alongside others, or rejoining the home-to-office commute via public transport. Personal situations may have changed too: new responsibilities as carers, relationships, illness or loss, are all factors that impact on an individual’s wellbeing and their ability to function in the same way as they did previously.
So how can we as a sector move the wellbeing conversation forward? Addressing wellbeing is not a one-off, tick-the-box kind of exercise. It is embedded in our culture and respects our value of care. It means putting a framework in place that guides our policies, and equips our leaders through training and development while recognising and supporting our colleagues’ individual needs.
Communication is key. Listening to each other, and understanding the pressures faced by colleagues, is an important first step. Respecting the needs of individuals while considering how the business can function and what is best for clients, is also key, and will drive developments like policy change and training requirements, as well as some of the more visible contributors to wellbeing in the physical office environment. With that in mind, there isn’t an off-the-shelf framework that will work for all, and it is already evident that lots of different models and solutions are emerging as we plan to return to offices when the Government guidelines allow. What is positive, is the level of engagement between businesses in Scotland, and in particular the legal sector, where firms are happy to share experiences and discuss some of the challenges that we may all face in the weeks and months ahead.
The pandemic has provided an opportunity to break from practices that seemed immovable 12 months ago. We, as a sector, have a responsibility to make these changes. If we take the time to listen to each other, the next steps in the wellbeing journey will be positive ones.
Emma Newlands is health and wellbeing manager at Brodies LLP
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