Compassion and Culture Change
The data is clear, we need to put mental wellbeing at the heart of legal culture if we want the industry to thrive, says Pete Riddleston
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 17.5m sick days were taken last year for mental health conditions, including stress, depression and anxiety – a figure which has been rising year on year. While this suggests a greater openness around mental health, there remains a stigma despite the body of evidence showing that mental wellbeing is key to performance.
You will know that working in the legal profession can affect your stress levels for at least some of the time. Research by Lexis Nexis shows a third of solicitors experiencing high levels of stress, with 75 per cent saying that mental wellbeing is a major issue for the profession. This echoes the words of the Stevenson/Farmer review into workplace mental health that many lawyers are “surviving but not thriving”. Mental health issues are something I care deeply about. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety on and off throughout my adult life. It’s a long time since I was a practising solicitor, but I remember clearly how I felt during the times when my depression and anxiety were really affecting me. Being in that dark tunnel of depression made work feel like a daily battle, as I struggled to cope with worsening symptoms. Right now, I’m in a pretty good phase. About two years ago I took up running. I found that I loved it and haven’t looked back since.
Running marathons – and supporting the mental health charity MIND in the process – helped me to feel better about myself and enabled me to speak out about my own mental health journey. My main reason for sharing my story was to start some conversations about mental health. I have managed that both outside work and in my role as learning and quality director at LawNet – where we have pushed the topic up the agenda for firms across our network. But for many, speaking out remains difficult. In the Junior Lawyers Division’s 2019 resilience and wellbeing survey, 93 per cent of junior lawyers said they had experienced stress at work. Many reported severe or extreme levels of stress, yet only one in five had told their employer. Almost 60 per cent considered taking time off, but didn’t. I had to take some time off when I worked as a lawyer and was struggling with depression, and there’s no doubt it can be difficult to speak out, even when you’re confident of a supportive response. It can be particularly hard when your confidence and self-worth is diminished. And it’s not just junior lawyers who may be affected. Many senior lawyers in management and leadership positions find themselves in highly pressurised, lonely roles where it is difficult to say the stress is getting too much.
The challenge here is that if senior leaders are struggling to deal with stress, then it’s much more difficult to put the right support in place at other levels. That is why working towards an open, supportive culture is essential. It’s essential to encourage people to treat each other with compassion – beginning with the organisation’s leadership – and it can underpin true cultural change.
The Law Society has produced some excellent guidance, Supporting wellbeing in the workplace, which is a useful place to start. We work closely with LawCare, the charity focused on supporting the wellbeing of lawyers, and have held workshops on the topic across our network of 70 mid-sized firms. To raise awareness further, we included a panel discussion at LawNet’s last annual conference.
Many people have said they appreciate us putting the issue on the agenda and want us to maintain the focus. For 2020, our learning programme will include the opportunity for members to explore wellbeing and employee engagement in more depth and to share their own experiences and ideas. We will be looking at how we can help them deliver support and guidance for senior leaders and managers; and staff in general. There is every reason to do so. A thorough approach to employee engagement and wellbeing, incorporating listening and well-targeted initiatives, can deliver real benefits and significantly improve the performance of every business.
Pete Riddleston is learning and quality director at LawNet