Lawyer Monthly - August 2022

Poor mental health in the workplace will never be solved until the solutions are designed around human beings, and their mental and physical health, rather than productivity. 33 AUG 2022 | WWW.LAWYER-MONTHLY.COM GETTING TO THE HEART OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION The potential of people is destroyed when they are left to somehow deal with the catastrophic effects of ill mental health. But if every one of these employees is supported and regularly communicates with likeminded colleagues and managers, much of these issues will be mitigated. What Should Law Firms Do and Not Do? The kinds of stressors facing a corporate lawyer will be different to those faced by a barrister or a legal aid solicitor. I advise employers to assign business leaders to focus purely on improving the mental health of their employees. My experience and research show that, above all, a balanced approach is key. People regularly hide when they are dealing with problems arising from their mental health and are likely to try to work through it. A great example of a business leader within professional services failing to safeguard the mental health of his employees can be seen in the UK chair of KPMG, Bill Michael, who told employees who were struggling with remote working during the height of the pandemic to "stop moaning." While KMPG is an accountancy firm, and Mr Michael did issue a formal apology to his staff, this type of top-down messaging is all too common in the legal sector too. Breaking Down the Contributors to Poor Wellbeing According to Dr Bob Murray, a third of all lawyers will ideate suicide at least once every year. Barristers and criminal lawyers come at the top of the list of people who will think about suicide, with small firms coming in behind. Crucially, none of these solicitors talk to anyone – even to their doctor – about how bad they feel. Young people and older people within legal services report similar levels of mental ill health, showing that there is much to be done to improve the workplace. Most professionals within the legal sector are perfectionists; it comes with the territory. But this means that they are more likely to suffer from burnout. Legal work in this sector is stressful and is getting worse. Chronic stress is therefore rife. Chronic stress leads to serious physical health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. Company-Wide Solutions for a Growing Problem De-stressing each individual within the workplace is a good approach to dealing with these problems. But a better way to support employee wellness is to change and de-stress the workplace environment. Victimisation is never the answer, and it is important for employers to unequivocally show support to those who are dealing with these kinds of issues. There should be no reward for pretence or hiding from these kinds of problems; rather, support should be accessible and encouraged. With some of the businesses that I work with, a programme of inclusivity and exercise has improved the collective wellness of employees. Combine Digital Solutions with Offline Solutions Digital solutions are also high on my agenda, and part of my current work is developing software that will help CEOs and business leaders to monitor employee mental health. Taking responsibility for employee health in the workplace is only going to become more essential for managers and leaders. Poor mental health in the workplace will never be solved until the solutions are designed around human beings, and their mental and physical health, rather than productivity. Change the Culture Across the Business There is a unique culture within the legal sector that has implications for the wellbeing of employees that others don not. From the earliest days of a legal career, the emphasis is on competition and billing (business development and growth). The more hours worked, the more successful the trainee or qualified lawyer, and the more they are rewarded. When we add client expectations on to this, along with the binary nature of legal work, it is unsurprising that people find it difficult to stay afloat mentally. Sometimes, with the stress on the body (shakes, adrenaline and over-/under-eating), it is both mental and physical health that takes a steep decline. A regulatory and competitive system that puts the majority of the emphasis on doing more, making more, and ensuring that there can be no failure, all combine to negatively impact the wellbeing of employees. The single most important step a business leader can take to combat this is to shift towards a work culture that thinks constant stress and pressure is not something that should be rewarded.

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