Travelers Europe has partnered with LawCare to help law firms foster cultures that promote mental health and wellbeing. Sharon Glynn, senior development underwriter at Travelers Europe, share their tips on how to create mentally healthy workplaces 

Are your employees okay? Increasingly, law firms that can honestly answer that question – and demonstrate a clear commitment to supporting their employees’ mental health – are gaining a competitive advantage. Beyond attracting and retaining talent, these firms are likely boosting their financial performance. According to a 2020 study from Deloitte, poor mental health costs UK employers £42-45 billion per year in absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover.

“A law firm’s greatest asset is their people, so supporting their mental health should be a top priority for senior leaders,” says Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, an organisation that provides training and other resources to promote healthy legal workplaces. “It is time to move from rhetoric to positive action to improve the culture and practice of law to create mentally healthy workplaces. Happier lawyers are more productive, do better work, make less mistakes, and are less likely to leave the firm or, indeed, the law entirely.”

At a time when law firms are vying with other firms, and even other industries, for legal talent, mental health support has become an important differentiator. Last year, the number of people contacting LawCare about anxiety more than doubled. This was a problem in the legal profession even before the pandemic; according to the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), a survey of law graduates revealed that 73% of respondents had experienced a severe or rare mental health problem and 67% are worried about the stigma associated with mental health, believing that telling their potential employers would hinder their chances of securing a role. Only 40% of respondents said they would feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their manager. More than half of respondents said they would rather cite physical ill health as a reason for absence from work. A majority of law graduates – 84% – said they would be more likely to apply to an employer who is open about their commitment to mental health.

While many law firms have recognised the need for mental health support, and developed initiatives around it, talking about mental health and actually providing the framework to foster it are different things. In the second half of 2020, the International Bar Association partnered with the consultancy Acritas to conduct two global surveys of wellbeing in the legal profession, gathering responses from thousands of legal employees and 180 legal organisations. The findings revealed a large disparity between the number of legal institutions that claim to have wellbeing initiatives in place (73%) and the degree to which managers are offered wellbeing training in some form (16%). Lawyers are noticing this disparity; the Law Society Junior Lawyers Division publish a resilience and wellbeing report, and its most recent instalment asked respondents to share what specific measures their employer has in place to help employees manage stress, as well as what their employer could be doing better.

While the legal profession has made progress in its efforts to protect employees’ mental health in recent years, there is more it can do – and the pandemic has magnified the need for support. Employees are becoming increasingly aware of which law firms pay lip service to mental health and which ones actually build cultures that are alert to the mental health challenges employees face, and actively provide help.

Building new law firm cultures

Creating a law firm culture that is responsive to employees’ mental health needs is about more than providing access to independent counselors (though that does help). It should start with a firm assessing and addressing the aspects of its culture that tend to trigger the most stress, for example:

Recognise – and respond to – employee overload shared an article with the account of a high-performing lawyer who was given an increased workload as a result of her strong results. She experienced burn out – which led her to resign – but said if the firm had hired more junior lawyers to help her manage her expanding workload, she would have stayed.

Allow lawyers to have hours when they are not expected to respond to work inquiries – and provide leeway for lawyers managing responsibilities outside of work.

Embrace flexible work

For many, working from home during the pandemic has improved work-life balance and stress levels. Others have missed the workplace connection with colleagues. Be open to discussing work schedules that maximise an individual’s wellbeing and productivity.

Replace confidence killers with confidence boosters

Avoid throwing junior lawyers into high-stakes, ‘sink-or-swim’ tasks – these may facilitate learning, but they are also likely to shatter confidence. Develop training tools and face-to-face mentoring opportunities to help junior lawyers learn in empowering ways.

Give managers the tools to spot problems

As a first line of support, managers should receive training on how to promote mental health within their team and identify potential problems.

Whether firms develop better mental health support systems because it is the ‘right thing to do’ or because they appreciate the financial benefits of having a culture that values employee wellbeing, they need to make their commitment clear. Those that do will become sought-after places to work, retain talented employees and minimise the risks that accompany mental health challenges.