We knew having senior partners champion a mental wellbeing programme would be a good idea.
Determined to take action, law firm Lewis Silkin arranged a round table with some of their clients, where concerned employees could discuss where the key pressures they face arise, and what they could do to help.
They identified several hotspots, including fierce competition for jobs, a reluctance to ‘switch off’ or take holiday, and difficulties in raising concerns during a crisis. “We discussed how lawyers at between 5-15 years PQE (post qualified experience) appear to have higher levels of poor wellbeing,” Karen Baxter, partner at the firm says. “And we also found it can be harder to get senior lawyers or partners to attend counselling.”
When considering solutions, they realised the tone needs to be set from the top. Many junior employees take their cues from their superiors, so ensuring everyone on board was essential. “We knew having senior partners champion a mental wellbeing programme would be a good idea,” Karen says. “And we knew senior figures within the firm speaking about their direct experience of mental ill-healthStart the conversationVideo
50One of the first, and easiest, things you can do to start improving mental health at work is simply to start a conversation. In this video, people from various industries talk about the importance of talking to someone.Free
By: Dorset MindView resource would also be helpful.”
One of the first steps Lewis Silkin took in improving its culture was the introduction of the ‘ThisPlaceMinds’ campaign. “It had a principal objective of ensuring we have a culture where anyone can share their mental health concerns, safely in the knowledge that they will be met with support and understanding,” Karen explains. Since it was essential to show that there was buy-in from senior members of staff, the campaign was led by two partners including one board member – Karen herself.
It included a week of wellbeing activities during Mental Health Awareness week – including a dedicated mindfulness room, free gym visits, and a session on how to improve sleepSleep and recovery: a toolkit for employersPDF
70Sleep is essential for good health and wellbeing: better sleep is the biggest single contributor to living better. This toolkit has insight and advice for employers to address the increasingly damaging sleep-loss epidemic.Free
By: Business in the CommunityView resource. “We want to ensure everyone who works at Lewis Silkin knows the importance of taking care of their mental wellbeing, how to do so, and how this can impact on them and their colleagues,” Karen says.
Guardians respect and maintain absolute confidentiality over issues raised with them.
Lewis Silkin also introduced a Guardians programme, developed in conjunction with The Old Vic theatre. The two firms had previously worked together following the sexual assault allegations made against actor Kevin Spacey, who was accused of sexual misconduct while working as the theatre’s artistic director.
“A Guardian is a member of staff who volunteers to help ensure a consistent understanding of culture throughout the organisation,” explains Karen. “After undergoing training, they act as a sounding board for colleagues who have something that they might want to share but are unsure about the best way of doing so.”
The role of a Guardian is to listen and give neutral support on issues and offer advice on where to get further help. “This could relate to something serious, or a more everyday matter,” Karen adds. “Guardians respect and maintain absolute confidentiality over issues raised with them except in cases in which the issues might amount to a criminal offence.”
The scheme has now been adopted by more than one hundred organisations, across multiple sectors, and continues to grow.
These two programmes have been extremely successful. “With both campaigns we wanted to encourage people to talk about their experiences and not feel afraid to come forward,” Karen says. “We have had overwhelming feedback from employees who now feel that any issue they have can be raised and that they will be listened to compassionately.”
Karen adds that ignoring the mental wellbeing of staff doesn’t just cause problems for that person– it can affect the whole business too. “In the legal profession, we sell our minds,” she says. “If a law firm does not look after the minds of its partners and staff, it is like owning a book shop and leaving the books out in the rain.
“The human cost to the affected individuals is clear, but there are further emotional and financial costs, including increased pressure on colleagues and reduced efficiency and productivity. Accessing the right support or treatment at the right time can significantly improve the return to work experience for both the individual and their team.”
We all need to treat our mental wellbeing as seriously as our physical wellbeing.
She suggests that there are some simple first steps any law firm could take to help their staff to cope better. “Many of us are juggling family and work life – so consider if you can offer flexible working or other solutions to ease this burden,” she explains. “Also, be aware of presenteeismPresenteeism and the hidden costs of staff who are glued to their seatsWeb page
10This news article from the Institute of Directors (IoD), in collaboration with Raconteur, discusses the issue of presenteeism and how it can be managed within an organisation. Free
By: Institute of DirectorsView resource, or the perception that you must work additional hours.”
Allowing staff to work from home can also help, as it may allow them to avoid distracting workplace conditions or a stressful commute. However, Karen warns it is important to include staff who are working remotely in your wellbeing programmes, and ensure they do not feel isolated from the rest of their teams.
“The key thing to remember is that mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect any one of us at any time,” Karen adds. “We all need to treat our mental wellbeing as seriously as our physical wellbeing, and accept that both can fluctuate throughout our lives.”
The legal profession has unique challenges for staff mental health - but there's a strong business case for addressing that. This short booklet outlines the issues and is full of tips for supporting staff and changing the culture.
LawCare provides support and information to anyone in the legal community. This page has details of their phone, email and web helpline, and information on all sorts of wellbeing issues - from bullying to stress to bereavement.