The negative impact of the pandemic on mental health has been in the headlines since the first lockdown, and official statistics for the first quarter of 2021 show that the incidence of depression in the population has doubled since the pandemic first struck.
This has serious implications for wellbeing and performance, affecting individuals and organisations alike, and it is important that leaders and managers demonstrate that they are facing up to the situation, with creative ideas to tackle problems head on and bring the firm together.
The pursuit of wellbeing is more than a corporate fruit bowl or Zoom drinks after work – although those have a place – it’s about prioritising psychological health by building the right culture, creating the right environment, and treating staff as individuals.
Most importantly there should be open communication, where managers ask people how they are feeling and what they are thinking in a safe environment where people feel confident in speaking out.
Addressing wellbeing has been a recurring theme in our regular discussion forum for leaders of our member firms, a national network of 70 SME law firms located across the UK. Experts have also joined the forum to share their ideas and the key learning points have emphasised the depth and breadth of communication needed in these times:
Recognising how work and home lives are inter-related, understanding the pressures people are facing, and helping staff be more fulfilled in both spheres can have a meaning way beyond the purely operational level. Greater flexibility in working hours, enabling a more responsive attitude towards client-facing interaction going forward, may be a way to bring benefits to the organisation while enabling staff to balance personal and work commitments.
When staff are working long hours and supporting agile working, it is vital to have an environment where people feel trusted and enabled to build on their strengths. This will not happen in a command and control setting, which rests on presenteeism and rule-keeping, requiring instead a challenge and support philosophy where leaders and managers develop their listening and coaching skills, as active listening can help identify issues and fuel targeted action.
Figures from Gallup suggest that individual managers can account for as much as 70% of the variance in employee engagement, because they have such a pivotal role. They can guide, support and ensure that employees know how their work is valued and contributes to the organisation. This makes it crucial for managers to have access to the right learning and development, if they are to adapt in today’s shifting working environment.
Being clear about expectations in the current environment is important, empowering staff to take a healthy approach to their day – whether stepping away from their dining table at a sensible time, getting out on a walk every day, or maintaining regular connections as a team – with the resulting uplift in productivity. Leaders in firms need to model such behaviours to show they are looking after their own wellbeing, not just say ‘do this’, as people may need that modelling to know it’s ok.
Chris Marston is Chief Executive at LawNet
 Gallup’s perspective on building a high-development culture through your employee engagement strategy, Gallup Inc, 2019