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MHAW: Raising mental health awareness in the legal sector

Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual event observed in many places around the world. The aim of this week is to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Although it is highlighted as a only a week to reflect on, it is something that is evident amongst most individuals every day and at work.

From the slightest inconvenience at work that makes you doubt your efforts to the abiding anxiety that creeps up on you that doesn’t seem to disappear, mental health is something that should be spoken about regularly – especially in the workplace.

Law Care’s 2020/21 report, Life in the Law looked at mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession and over 1,700 professionals took part. The report found that 69% of participants reported they had experienced mental ill-health in the preceding 12 months before completing the survey – only 56% of those people had talked about this at work.

More on this, those aged 26-35 displayed the highest burnout scores, whilst those aged 56-65 displayed the lowest.

Individuals working in the legal sector are evidently facing these struggles. Leah Steele, Executive Coach, Trainer and Consultant, said that law is an “inherently stressful” area of work. She continued:

“It’s technical and complex, dealing with people at some of the most vulnerable and emotional times in their lives or where significant sums of money and interests are on the line, and the kind of person who works in law often has high expectations of themselves, goes above and beyond, is a perfectionist and who cares deeply about the outcomes they are seeking. Add those two things together and we have a powder keg waiting for the spark to ignite!”

When asked “how do you prioritise mental health and wellbeing at work?”, Leah said:

“Recognising how vulnerable it can feel to prioritise our needs above our work and clients is key; but if you want a healthy, sustainable career then it’s absolutely vital.  It’s also not a strict binary – by taking care of ourselves we are not letting others down, we’re actually creating the capacity and resources to do our vitally important work for years and even decades to come.

[…] Starting with the basics, like improved psychological safety in teams, proactively surveying staff to respond to their actual expressed needs rather than what we think they might want, offering safe spaces both inside and outside of the firm to ask for confidential support, blow or steam, strategise and plan to overcome difficulties.

None of these things cost much time or money, but they will directly impact not only the wellbeing of staff, but can help reduce presenteeism, improve client outcomes, improve compliance and reduce the risk of claims, even reducing a firm’s PII premium as wellbeing was recently identified as the fourth leading cause of claims by solicitors firms.”

The SRA’s support and guidance for supporting mental health and wellbeing states that they “can provide reasonable adjustments and signpost to sources of support for people who experience ill health while they are being investigated by us”. It states that:

“We also provide guidance and good practice for law firms in our thematic review of workplace culture. A poor culture not only affects personal wellbeing but also ethical behaviour, competence and ultimately the standard of service received by clients.”

Susana Berlevy, Chief People Officer at Irwin Mitchell, explained how their firm tackles wellbeing concerns in the workplace and offered some top tips on best practice:

  • Self-care: encouraging colleagues to take time to understand their needs to make sure they’re happy, healthy and motivated
  • Meaningful connections: meaningful and trustworthy relationships with colleagues so everyone feels connected and working towards a shared goal
  • Feeling valued: being recognised for your contributions
  • Creating space: having clear priorities and creating a good mental space

Susana continued:

“It’s vital that law firms recognise the challenges faced by employees and take practical steps to help colleagues deal not just with the everyday stresses of their role but to recognise people are individuals and a comprehensive package of support is vital to ensure wellbeing is a priority.

Recent guidance from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has also made clear that toxic cultures can be related to poor ethical behaviours. As such, wellbeing is now a regulatory requirement, and the SRA has indicated they will take action in cases where a poor workplace culture leads to a breach of regulatory requirements.”

She also added that their National Wellbeing Team focus on issues “colleagues have identified as areas of concern for them throughout the year”. She said:

“This can include anything from financial wellbeing, prioritising workloads and tailored support for specific teams, to using data and insights and working in partnership with our business leaders.

We offer a comprehensive suite of wellbeing resources, while the dedicated Wellbeing Hub offers fast access to different tiers of support, including a colleague helpline, plus counselling and isolation support.

The employee assistance programme is a free and confidential service, that provides all colleagues with ‘in the moment’ support from an independent advisor 24/7, who is trained to help with any issue that may be affecting someone, be it at home or work.”

“Firms should never feel worried about asking for consultancy or support from an outsider – if we could have done this in house we would have by now, and I would argue that it requires the perspective, confidentiality and challenge of someone outside of the firm to really create meaningful change,” Leah Steele added, concluding:

“Any for any individuals who think they’ll wait a little longer to ask for help, please reach out sooner rather than later. We can do much more effective, impactful and frankly cheaper work if we work proactively, rather than reacting to burnout and exhaustion. We study for years to develop the technical skills necessary to be a lawyer; but no-one teaches us at law school how to manage and develop our careers.”

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