What can managers do to improve wellbeing in their firms? A major study by LawCare provides some answers

LawCare has released the findings of its groundbreaking study Life in the Law. This research into wellbeing in the profession captured data between October 2020 and January 2021 from over 1,700 professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man. The aim of the research was to take a snapshot of mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession to help inform future steps the profession must collectively take to improve wellbeing in the sector.

As part of the research we wanted to know what makes a difference to wellbeing, and what firms and legal organisations can practically do to help their staff stay mentally healthy at work.

Training with catch-ups

In our questionnaire we presented a list of common workplace measures for wellbeing, and asked participants to identify in relation to each whether the measure was in place at their workplace, and whether they found it helpful.

Of all the options we gave, participants agreed that the most helpful, and indeed the most prevalent, were regular catch-ups and appraisals.

Our qualitative data gave us some further insight into why this can benefit wellbeing. The informality of these meetings was highlighted as a positive, as was the usefulness of sharing problems and empathising. This sense of collegiality is fulfilling the psychological need for strong and trustful work relationships. It may also ameliorate feelings of being isolated that result from homeworking. Importantly, the qualitative data indicated the need to know how well you were doing in the eyes of your colleagues and seniors. Participants wished to be sure that they “understood their role in the team and expectations of me”. This is satisfying the psychological need for a growing sense of competence.

Despite the positive comments about regular catch-ups and appraisals, we noted that only 40.8% who listed this workplace measure as the most important found these helpful. We also observed from our data that of the 829 participants who indicated they worked in a position of management or a supervisory capacity, only 395 (47.6%) said that they had received leadership, management, or supervisory training. Of these respondents, 353 (89.4%) said it was helpful or very helpful.

This suggests that there is considerable potential for supporting lawyer wellbeing through training aimed at increasing the effectiveness of regular catch-ups and appraisals conducted by managers and supervisors.

In addition, the survey data indicated that over 40% of participants who had experienced mental ill health in the last 12 months had not mentioned it at work.

 The qualitative data give some insight as to the reasons for this, including fear of the consequences for one’s career; and no point, because nothing would be done or because it was part of the job to risk such ill health.

Training managers to support the mental health of their teams could include an understanding of the concepts of psychological safety and autonomy support. Improved psychological safety reduces the risk of burnout. Experiencing autonomy support at work improves wellbeing and motivation.

Give staff autonomy

Managers and supervisors have a role to play in promoting autonomy within their teams: the ability to control what, where, how, and with whom, work is done. In addition, managers can positively influence wellbeing and motivation in their employees by adopting a non-controlling, interpersonal style. This is particularly important where there is a relationship between lawyers in which one person is in a position of power over the other. In essence the manager would acknowledge the preferences of their supervisee, provide meaningful choices where possible, and if not, explain the reason why choice is not available.

Research on lawyer happiness and wellbeing indicates that autonomy is an important concept. If you experience autonomy in your working life, your chances of happiness and wellbeing are increased. The responses to a survey of several thousand lawyers in America were analysed using a theory developed over the past 40 years by positive psychologists, known as self-determination theory. This is a useful theory for examining social contexts, such as the workplace, to identify factors that positively impact on wellbeing. It suggests that where an individual experiences autonomy, competence and relatedness, their levels of wellbeing flourish. This research indicated, and please forgive the simplification, that what made lawyers happy was experiencing autonomy support at work.

Research has also found that controlling behaviour undermines wellbeing and motivation. The Life in the Law research supports this and found that participants with lower autonomy at work displayed higher burnout. So, if you are in a position of power over a less experienced colleague and you wish to support their wellbeing, motivation, persistence and happiness, autonomy support is key. Actively listening to colleagues to understand their perspective, and balancing control with meaningful choices where possible, is key. By understanding autonomy and an individual’s perception of this, we can better understand wellbeing in the workplace.

Cultivate psychological safety

The concept of psychological safety has existed for decades, and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson has made it her life’s work since coming across the concept and publishing her seminal paper in 1999. More recently, Google published its multi-year project, codenamed Aristotle, to identify the core attributes that drive peak performing teams – the most important attribute (amongst more than 200 metrics) was found to be psychological safety.

Psychological safety relates to how safe someone feels to take interpersonal risks, such as raising a concern, admitting a mistake, asking a question, or asking for help, without the fear of negative repercussions. Our research found a correlation between higher rates of burnout and a lower level of psychological safety. This indicates that targeted interventions to increase psychological safety in the workplace might help to reduce the risk of burnout, as well as increase levels of wellbeing in the profession.

Leaders play a critical role in cultivating higher levels of psychological safety in a team environment. Our research found that while the majority have felt comfortable disclosing mental health concerns to someone at work, a sizeable minority (43.5%) indicated that they had not disclosed their mental ill health at work. The most common reason for not disclosing was the fear of the stigma that would attach, and the resulting career implications, and financial and reputational consequences: a clear indication that those people lacked the psychological safety needed.

However, psychological safety isn’t simply about whether people feel able to disclose challenges with their mental health. It’s about facilitating more candid everyday conversations in the workplace, which psychological safety makes possible. If people don’t feel safe to own up to mistakes, legal careers can be jeopardised, and a firm’s reputation tarnished – the cases of Sovani James and Claire Matthews are good examples. When people can’t ask questions without fear of looking stupid in front of colleagues, because of a culture of perfectionism, everyone (including clients, firms and lawyers) loses.

Some firms are starting to take positive steps in cultivating psychologically safe cultures, but the data (including from our own research and a recent International Bar Association wellbeing survey) suggest there is still some way to go. 

In terms of specific leadership skills that can be taught, research in this area suggests that developing more empathetic leaders is crucial. So too is encouraging leaders to be more open and humble about some of the challenges they have faced in their careers. Doing so can readily pave the way for more junior colleagues to do the same, which will encourage greater candour in the workplace. The increased levels of psychological safety that this can create, may help to reduce the risk of burnout, bolster wellbeing, and just as importantly bolster individual and team performance.

Opportunities to cultivate psychological safety at work are plentiful, and informal catch-ups are a great forum in which to put some of the above skills into practice.

The full report is at www.lawcare.org.uk/lifeinthelaw

 

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The Author

Nick Bloy, a former lawyer, an executive coach and founder of Wellbeing Republic, and Professor Caroline Strevens, University of Portsmouth, are both research committee members of Life in the Law

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