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Enhancing wellbeing in law: a bottom line issue

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Chetna Bhatt, one of the speakers at our 2019 people in practice conference , considers the link between wellbeing and the bottom line – and why a fresh perspective is needed to make a strong business case for the wellbeing agenda.

When I co-hosted the first wellbeing conference with the Law Society in January 2016, we were in a very different climate. Delegates seemed to be relieved to be sharing wellbeing concerns openly for the first time. Since then, wellbeing has undoubtedly climbed up the agenda – with some law firms leading the way and implementing a range of wellbeing initiatives. Yet, there remains a significant amount of work to do. 

The mental wellbeing crisis 

We seem to have reached a crisis point for mental wellbeing in work. Wellbeing issues (which can range from normal day-to-day levels of stress through to long-term mental ill health diagnoses) have become a business-critical issue for many organisations, including law firms. To summarise the current situation: 

In October 2018, the Prince’s Responsible Business Network published a report on mental health at work which notes huge strides in relation to mental health issues in the workplace. However, the report also stresses the severity of these issues, and how employers urgently need to ramp up the breadth and quality of support that they are providing.

The call for evidence

Many organisations still consider wellbeing initiatives a cost rather than an investment and have called for empirical data to connect the efficacy of such initiatives with a healthy bottom line. 

There can, however, be no denying the significant body of evidence showing the two are interlinked. Rather than being separate aims, they are dependant components of a financially and psychologically healthy workplace. 

Case studies: investing in wellbeing 

Below are three examples of businesses that have benefited from investing in wellbeing initiatives. 

  1. The London School of Economics analysed data from the Royal Mail, where an investment of £45m generated a £225m return on investment from 2004 to 2007. The study concluded that, were the 13 worst-performing sectors to follow suit, the impact on the UK economy could be £1.45b. 
  2. NHS trusts that score highly on the health and wellbeing index (measured annually through the NHS staff survey) have better performance across a range of measures including financial, spending on agency staff, patient satisfaction and fewer acute infections. 
  3. A six-year case study at BAE Systems plc examined the relationship between wellbeing training and organisational performance. The results showed an increase in resilience, improved teamwork / interpersonal communications, enhanced problem-solving skills and happier employees. Moreover, there was a year-on-year increase in sales and profit, surpassing annual forecasts, and a significant decrease in staff turnover rates from just over 8% to just over 2% (with a significant saving in recruitment costs).

There is a growing movement to consider wellbeing as essential to productivity, and workplace wellbeing is becoming the new bottom line issue. The new What Works centre for wellbeing , a UK government-funded initiative, aims to consider how to use data and other evidence on wellbeing to create better policies and practices. 

Great focus has been placed on the cost of sickness absence as the basis for engaging on wellbeing issues

In this short video , Nigel Jones, chairman of the City Mental Health Alliance and former partner at Linklaters LLP, acknowledges the need for fully reliable metrics to evidence the return on investment in wellbeing initiatives. However, he warns against using the current lack of evidence as an excuse for failing to invest in wellbeing. Investing in such initiatives, he says, is important to maintain a competitive advantage in terms of both pitching for work and recruiting top-quality graduates, and more generally in terms of improving the bottom line.

A further key reason is that employers also have a legal (and moral) duty of care to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. 

One of the ways to make the business case for wellbeing is to link it to your firm’s strategic priorities. These will vary between organisations but, typically, might include reducing business costs, such as sickness absence; or attracting the best people and improving employee engagement.

Although a great degree of focus has been placed on the cost of sickness absence as the basis for engaging businesses on wellbeing issues, in my view, law firms need to go beyond this and look at initiatives which enable us all to thrive and create a wellbeing movement from within.

Getting to the source of the issue

While many firms have started to invest in various wellbeing initiatives, advice primarily appears to come in the form of a sticking plaster – getting more sleep, more exercise, or keeping a healthier diet to address high levels of stress, for instance. I believe that such advice only addresses the symptoms rather than the root cause of stress and fails to improve the underlying issue in the long term. Moreover, using coping strategies can sometimes feel effortful – almost like a job on top of a job, just to stay well – and so they are often the first thing we drop when our workload increases.  

Each law firm (and individual) has different needs: there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so a universal prescription of tools and techniques cannot be effective. 

It is time for a more fundamental, grass roots shift in the way lawyers and law firms operate.  Rather than providing a sticking plaster, firms need to look in a different direction and address mental wellbeing issues at their source.

What can firms do differently?

The key to transforming wellbeing in law firms comes from each of us understanding how our minds work. Once we understand the way something works, it becomes much easier to navigate. And once we understand the true source of our wellbeing and potential, we can effortlessly tap into both at will, regardless of external pressures. With this solid foundation of wellbeing, we are able to withstand challenges and thrive without the risk of burnout.  

Rather than providing a sticking plaster, firms need to address mental wellbeing issues at their source

To give an insight into the understanding with an analogy, our minds are like a snow globe. We are continually shaking the snow globe by thinking hard about solutions, hoping that the snow will settle. We may deploy various coping strategies, which do not always work and may even inadvertently shake the snow globe further. As soon as we place the globe down, however, the snow settles and we have a clear picture and perspective. 

Our minds work in the same way. When we try to calm our mind using techniques such as positive thinking, we experience the fullness of the shaken snow globe. As soon as we stop overthinking, overanalysing and resisting our experience, the snow starts to settle. We can then readily access our clear mind, which provides creative solutions, and it becomes obvious to us what we need to say or do. 

Addressing wellbeing challenges at their source enables us to enjoy other benefits too, including better relationships, clearer communication, insightful problem solving, less stress, improved resilience, productivity and engagement – so that we can thrive at work in an effortless way. 

Those of us preparing the business case in firms need to experience the practical benefits of this understanding first hand. With this clarity and ability to access our potential, we may prepare impactful business cases with transformative, creative and sustainable wellbeing solutions, perfectly tailored for our firms. 

Chetna Bhatt is a qualified executive coach, part time employment lawyer and speaker.

Chetna will be exploring the business case for the wellbeing agenda in more detail at the Law Management Section people in practice conference on Wednesday 6 March 2019.

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