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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Wellbeing in dystopia

Wellbeing in dystopia


Firms that care for the mental and emotional health of staff now will reap the rewards in future. Catherine Baksi reports

Paying attention to mental, physical and emotional health is particularly important in these unusual and uncertain times. In less than two months the covid-19 lockdown has changed lawyers’ working lives in ways they could not have imagined.

More than half of the courts have closed down, criminal trials have been halted and hearings are being done remotely over Skype and Zoom. 

For several years, law firms have operated flexible working arrangements, enabling some of their partners and staff to work from home – for maybe one or two days a week – to help balance home and working lives, and to save expensive office square-footage.

But covid-19 and the government’s social distancing guidance and requirement to work from home where possible, have forced all firms to transform their operations almost overnight, so that virtually everyone is working from home.

No more a novelty Gone is the daily commute and the requirement to be suited and booted; and to shave or put on make-up.

At first, the prospect of working from home in your pyjamas and catching some afternoon telly may have seemed appealing, but after the novelty has worn off and your favourite lounge-ware is looking saggy and sad, the idea of not going into the office again until who knows when brings its own anxiety.

In this unprecedented situation, as well as focusing on getting the technology right to enable home-working, firms are finding innovative and entertaining ways to help everyone stay connected, as they work remotely, to help keep body and mind together.

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of the charity LawCare, which supports legal professionals and provides a confidential phone helpline, reports that 50 per cent of its contacts are now related to covid-19. One of the most common problems relates to the stress, anxiety and isolation felt by lawyers who are working from home. 

“What’s happening now is not just working from home and business as usual, but working from home in a different way, in an exceptional environment – perhaps with your partner or children at home too,” she says.

She warns: “Don’t underestimate how much headspace it takes up. Everyone’s stress bucket is fuller than usual – we are thinking about everything in different ways and not only worrying about our day-to-day work, but we are doing it during a crisis that is unfolding around us, and worrying about our family and where food is coming from in ways we haven’t done before.” Her advice to everyone in these dystopian times is “be kinder to yourselves – we are all under a lot more stress and it takes its toll”. 

Among its online covid-19 resources, LawCare has posted blogs on tips for working from home, coping with anxiety and building resilience, and reducing stress.

The Law Society, its Junior Lawyers Division and a host of other legal groups also provide a raft of online wellbeing resources. Size counts The ease with which firms will have coped with the transition may depend on their size and how technically equipped they are to enable home-working on a large scale. 

Similarly, some people may be finding the changed circumstances easier than others. Those who have not worked from home before the crisis hit may be finding it a particular struggle; and individual responses can change over time. As a result, says Rimmer, leadership and communication are essential.

To keep in touch, most firms have set up daily and weekly individual and team meetings over the phone or video, using Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp; as well as sending out regular emails –with additional similar communication among the management team. Most stress the importance of not just doing everything by email, but using video to help people feel more connected.

Particular attention should be taken to keep open easy lines of communication for junior lawyers, says Rimmer, because “working remotely will make it harder for people to reach out and ask for help with work if they need it” – adding to their stress.

Catch-ups and hubs Some firms also provide weekly ‘wellbeing catch-ups’. Natasha Broomfield-Reid, diversity inclusion and wellbeing manager at Mills & Reeve, explains: “This is an opportunity for staff to get support if they require it, speak to colleagues from the wider office, get tips and guidance regarding their new way of working, generally keeping in touch and trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.”

If anyone on the call indicates directly or shows signs that they are not coping, Broomfield-Reid follows it up with them privately.

Mills & Reeve provides specific “parents and carers wellbeing catch ups” and its employee networks have their own initiatives, for example, the Ability Network which ensures that the needs of staff with disabilities are met. 

Broomfield-Reid also offers support for people living alone; and those who spend significant time alone because they are separated from their partner who’s an essential worker. 

Firm intranets and newsletters have become essential hubs or noticeboards, providing practical and wellbeing updates; and details of remote events and information sharing, including tips on food delivery options and ideas for recipes – or suggestions for what to read or watch on television. 

Firm leaders, says Rimmer, have an important role to play and need to demonstrate their commitment to the health and wellbeing of their staff, not just in what they say, but by example – by looking after themselves too. “If you, as a leader, are unwell and need to self-isolate, you need to do that and demonstrate that you are following the same rules”, she comments.

Peter Taylor, managing partner at South East firm Paris Smith, records and circulates a weekly five-minute video message to his troops. He says: “I look to be positive and what I say comes from the heart,” but, he adds, he is “not frightened to deliver a realistic tone”. 

Practically, the amount of work that firms expect people to do will also have a huge impact on their wellbeing and they cannot expect fee-earners to deliver in the same way as they did before lockdown, says Rimmer. “You can’t maintain normal billing targets while working from home,” in these circumstances, she insists, especially where children are at home and need to be home-schooled or otherwise kept occupied.

She has heard of people getting up in the early hours of the morning and working for a few hours before spending time with their children, but warns “this is not sustainable in the long-term”.

Accepting that fee-earners with children at home cannot work a normal day, London firm Bindmans is letting people complete their hours over seven days. “While we don’t want to encourage people to work seven days a week, flexibility is needed now,” says the firm’s HR director Nicola O’Shea.

To help with the non work-related practicalities of lockdown, many firms have provided links to online resources and information. Leeds firm Clarion has pulled together “Clarion Classroom” providing sources of information for working parents to help with home-schooling. For those with time to spare and keen to help the community, the firm has also given details of local volunteering and charity schemes. 

At Norton Rose Fulbright, to encourage employees to continue their volunteering and fundraising efforts during the crisis, Europe, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) HR director Lak Purewal says the firm has extended conditions for annual volunteering leave, enabling staff to support a wider range of organisations and programmes, such as the NHS volunteering scheme.

In particular, it is encouraging staff to consider initiatives focused on groups who are particularly vulnerable at this time, including the elderly, homeless and low income families.

Rimmer reminds firms that the basics are important and suggests including, in a weekly update, a reminder that relaxation and sleep are important to mental and physical wellbeing, with tips on sleeping well, keeping to a routine, eating healthily, taking exercise and drinking in moderation. 

For Taylor at Paris Smith, it is about carrying on the practices that the firm has established. He says: “Mental resilience has played an important part in our culture for some time before this crisis. We have hosted mental health workshops for all staff, run specific training for line managers in the firm to help identify stress in team members and we have a number of mental health first aiders across the firm.” 

Managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s London office, Segun Osuntokun, highlights its dedicated wellbeing app, BeWell, which the firm launched last year to provide access to support – and which he says has recently come into its own.

To help ensure its staff stay well and seek appropriate medical help, Clarion is encouraging its staff to access their ‘Perk Box’ – or employee benefits account – for wellbeing information, including fitness videos, online yoga and nutritional help, and reminders to make use of the remote 24/7 GP service and online and telephone counselling through its employee assistance programme.

Obelisk, a firm that provides lawyers to inhouse legal teams and law firms, started a podcast series to advise on mental health issues while working from home; as well as a practical blog featuring discussions ranging from workspace wellness to feng shui and reiki.

Providing a creative outlet, Obelisk invites lawyers to take part in its second annual photographic competition. Supporting the charity Safe Passage, which helps child refugees, images on the theme of displacement should capture changes – large or small – in their lives.

To help people stay connected in ways that don’t focus on work, firms have come up with creative online keep fit and social activities. Lawyers at London firm Peters & Peters are taking part in online yoga, dance classes and lunchtime wellbeing workshops. And to entertain staff, the firm runs a weekly cinema night, a quiz, drinks and a kitchen disco for the kids.

Other ideas come from Norton Rose Fulbright, which hosts ‘pilates at your desk’; and Mills & Reeve, which runs physical and mental health challenges and social events.

One of the biggest challenges, says O’Shea, is recreating opportunities for casual conversations between colleagues. “You cannot replicate over video or telephone the opportunities for informal chats that you would have over a cup of coffee in the morning or over lunch, because you can’t all talk at once,” she observes.

But firms are giving it a go. Exeter-based Cartridges Law holds virtual coffee meet-ups using Zoom and even had remote celebratory drinks when a junior member of staff qualified. 

Rimmer notes other examples used to introduce levity, including starting catch-up meetings with an informal ‘meet my pets’ time or Through the Keyhole style competitions – where staff take pictures of their rooms and colleagues guess whose house it is, as well as holding meetings where everyone has to wear a hat.

“It’s just about making things fun,” she says. Furloughed, not forgotten But among the fun, there’s no escaping the seriousness of the financial situation that firms have been thrown into as a result of the lockdown, and some have been forced to take the difficult decision to furlough staff. 

That does not mean they have just cut them off and forgotten about them. Several firms have extended the practical and mental health initiatives to those they have temporarily laid off. For example, the mental health first aiders at Clarion telephoned all furloughed employees to help them cope with their greater sense of isolation and sign-post them to appropriate support.

Considering the importance of the measures to help staff now, O’Shea notes: “The firm is there to help the clients, but if the lawyers and staff aren’t looked after properly, the clients will suffer.”

The president of the Law Society Simon Davis agrees. He says: “The public in this time of upheaval need to be able to rely on an experienced professional who puts the client’s interest ahead of their own. These professionals in turn need someone to have their back, to look after their mental, physical and financial welfare.”

And, adds Rimmer, this unsettling and disorientating time presents “an opportunity to show that you value and care for your team”. Firms that respond well to the situation and look after their staff will, she says, “recoup the dividends father down the line”.  

Catherine Baksi is a barrister and freelance journalist