Putting mental wellbeing at the heart of legal culture
by Pete Riddleston, learning & quality director, LawNet
Originally published in Solicitors Journal, January 2020
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 17.5 million 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.
For anyone reading this, I won’t need to tell you that working in the legal profession can affect your stress levels, at least some of the time. Research by Lexis Nexis shows one-third of solicitors experiencing high levels of stress, with 75% saying that mental wellbeing is a major issue for the profession, echoing the words of the Stevenson Farmer Review that many lawyers are 'surviving but not thriving'.
Mental health issues are something I care deeply about as I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety on and off throughout my adult life.
It’s a long time since I worked as 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 and I think I’ve certainly managed that, both outside work and in my role as learning & 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 2019 Resilience and Wellbeing Survey from the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers division, 93% 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% 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 is 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 that the stress is getting too much. The challenge here is that if senior leaders are struggling to deal with stress, then it is much more difficult to put the right support in place at other levels.
That is why working towards an open, supportive culture is essential. Encouraging people to treat each other with compassion, beginning with the organisation’s leadership, is essential and 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-size firms. To further raise awareness we included a panel discussion at LawNet’s last annual conference. Many people have said how 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 as well as 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.