Exploring wellbeing in the legal sector

Written by
Samantha Clarke

18 Feb 2016

18 Feb 2016 • by Samantha Clarke

Law sector vs positive wellbeing

Many sectors are striving ahead with solutions and ideas around workspace design, emotional leadership development and collaborative experiences to enhance their employees and bolster the work atmosphere. 

Unfortunately the legal sector still seems to be lagging behind. Studies report that lawyers working in law firms have the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing than all other professionals. Further studies by The Positive Group on specific well-being at The Bar noted the some of the following areas as challenges:

•    Work capacity in relation to working hours –continual time pressure and challenges on time management leading often to a lack of time for preparation and a constant ‘battle’ of deadlines. 

•    Work/life integration - a sense of constant juggling; always being on call and family life pushed to the margins.

•    Control and certainty – unrealistic client demands and expectations; lack of control over increasing workload.

•    Expectations (self and from others) – the pressure associated with a constant expectation of excellence; always being on show; the pressure of getting it wrong alongside the requirement of always getting it right; having one’s judgement continually tested.

•    Support – respondents reported the challenges and lack of support and recognition/appreciation; loneliness; lack of support to cope with the distressing aftermath and/or during difficult case.

Baby steps towards embracing wellbeing

Law firms are at a relatively early stage in thinking about wellbeing, resilience and support as these relate to stress, and mental and physical health. But the legal sector must address this “ vacuum” when it comes to wellbeing and make it a bottom-line issue as a strategy for success. 

Firms taking the leap like Hogan Lovells have a firm wellbeing strategy in place and now have counselling in-house as a push for increased mental well-being.  Herbert Smith launched an internal training programme in 2009 to help its staff recognise the symptoms of stress and deal with mental illness and Clifford Chance has developed a unique graduate development programme in conjunction with The Positive Group to raise awareness of the importance of psychological well-being in the workplace. The Performance Optimisation Programme (POP) is aimed at developing more resilient individuals who are able to sustain their performance with the capability to cope and adapt when faced with periods of pressure and challenging situations.

"Law firms are at a relatively early stage in thinking about wellbeing."

How can HR help?

If legal firms don’t make a serious move towards changing their culture they risk a brain drain significantly from millennials, who will decide there are other industries they are better suited too. One area where HR can certainly help is in the following areas:

•    Facilitating the type of culture where it is not seen as weakness for employees to speak up if they are struggling.

•    Train line managers to have the confidence and skills to implement policies and handle difficult conversations with staff in a sensitive and effective way. Help them to recognise the signs of stress in colleagues and how to point them towards help. 

•    Create a healthy culture with commitment and role-modelling from those in senior positions

•    Engage in technology and employee engagement apps to provide insight and data firsthand on the health and wellbeing of employees. This can be used to monitor the progress of any wellbeing approaches implemented and act as a supportive case and evidence for new methods to senior management. 

•    Create an attitude of collaborative crowdsourcing to find health approaches that work and are in alignment with your company values. Allow staff to submit ideas on what might work for them versus typical suggestions. 

•    Wellbeing cannot be just a bolt-on or fad initiative. It cannot just be set up and left to run. It’s the duty of HR to seek out supporters and the right ambassadors throughout the firm at all levels and create the right strategic messaging. 

While it is fair to acknowledge that being a lawyer is a high pressured occupation, most companies are still focused on resilience and mindfulness strategies to support their employees rather than much needed prevention strategies. Not to say that there isn’t a place for mindfulness, but there needs to be a step away from relying just on the ‘resilience’ framework and a move towards primary prevention strategies like a change in mindset and attitude, better leadership training to spot early signs of stress and work environment factors