Kerry Slater reflects on the impact changes to SRA guidance will have on resilience, psychological safety, and the wellbeing of legal professionals
At the Workplace Collective (TWC), our primary aim is to help corporate national and international organisations to enhance and maintain staff wellbeing. Our work involves offering intervention and training programmes that help reduce workplace stress, increase motivation for staff, equip leaders and organisational partners to embrace challenge and uncertainty, or help staff through professional and personal crises.
As a firm of practising psychologists, psychotherapists and coaches that offers psychological support and supervision to lawyers and other professionals, the new rules and guidance on supervision and wellbeing introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) this September are of crucial interest.
The guidance includes specific obligations in the codes of conduct for firms and individuals to treat colleagues fairly and with respect, and not to engage in unfair discriminatory practice, bullying, or harassment. It also clarifies the approach to situations where a solicitor’s health issues may affect their ability to practise or to participate in the SRA’s enforcement processes. This builds on the SRA’s 2022 Workplace culture thematic review, which highlighted that, while three-quarters of respondents reported working in a broadly positive environment, there were still concerns and issues about the pressures on solicitors.
All of us at TWC – and increasingly other key stakeholders in the profession – believe that the paradigm shift towards offering significant and supportive workplace wellbeing strategies is positive and ethical.
As a psychotherapist, I see first-hand the impact of working in highly pressured environments. Many of the clients we support, while finding their careers rewarding, work within a very fast-paced, demanding and often stressful world.
The nature of the profession and the legal system, alongside the ‘content’ of the material they work with, often means that there is a significant personal impact on mental health. Packed caseloads and tight deadlines, tricky clients with complex material, 24/7 communication channels, highly commercial competitive environments, and varying degrees of psychological safety and autonomy all take a toll – and that’s before personal lives and cultural systems impact on emotional and mental resilience. These factors create a heady mix of challenges and can be relentless for many of the diligent, passionate lawyers I work with.
In 2021, LawCare reported that the legal professional is under strain. Its research, drawn from a sample of 1,700 legal professionals, showed that most participants (69%) had experienced mental ill-health, including anxiety, depression and low mood in the past 12 months. Participants also averaged a score of 42.2 on the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory, which corresponds to a ‘high risk of burnout’. Particularly high levels of burnout were related to exhaustion, as well as to those who identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group (11.5%) or reported a disability (9.3%). Those two groups also displayed lower average scores in terms of autonomy and psychological safety at work.
Another noteworthy statistic is that just over one in five participants had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Those who reported this also displayed higher burnout levels, lower autonomy and psychological safety at work, and had higher levels of work intensity.
As we see at TWC, and as noted in LawCare’s findings, many in the profession use what we call ‘maladaptive strategies’ to try and cope with stress and burnout, which then perpetuate psychological distress or mental ill-health. Such strategies include drugs, excessive drinking, uncharacteristic sexual behaviour, gambling, bullying others or making severe errors of judgement.
I want to highlight a few key issues in light of the SRA guidance.
Burnout became recognised by the World Health Organisation in 2019 as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by the following symptoms:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job, and
- reduced professional efficacy.
I see workplace burnout in the professions as a response to chronic stress within firms, with reduced professional efficacy, emotional exhaustion and pressures to meet targets. Burnout is thought to partially explain increasing absenteeism and intention to leave the professions.
Supervision and psychological support can be important both in improving efficiency and buffering against psychological distress. The LawCare research highlighted that a psychologically safe workplace is one where workers believe they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions and concerns, or revealing mistakes. A work environment where someone feels likely to be negatively evaluated by peers and managers can be psychologically unsafe because it provokes anxiety and higher risk of burnout, whereas if legal professionals feel supported and safe, they are likely to feel psychologically safer and display lower burnout levels.
It could be argued that more effective legal teams are typically characterised by higher psychological safety, where individuals can take interpersonal risks in the workplace, speaking up or voicing concerns.
Importance of inclusivity
Part of maintaining wellbeing relates to the need for our diversity to be valued and respected. As the profession is now more diverse than across characteristics such as gender, class, sexuality, social class and economic factors, age, disability, ethnicity and neurodiversity, inclusivity must be demonstrated through fairness and provision of equal opportunities, as well as equitable outcomes. The Law Society’s diversity and inclusion framework outlines the areas relating to diversity and inclusion (D&I), stresses the importance of workplace adjustments, and encourages law firm leaders to take a systematic approach and embed D&I in a way that has a lasting impact.
What about supervision?
As the SRA guidance says, proper supervision is more than just checking that staff are progressing client matters. It means making sure that, as a firm, you are regularly monitoring and assessing individuals’ workloads and capacity and their competence to do the work, but also offering psychological support to both staff and management to manage the impact of their work on their wellbeing.
This should include having systems and a culture in place that are psychologically safe, enabling individuals to be able to confidently raise concerns or be supported if they are experiencing problems, including on difficult or sensitive issues. To ensure excellent support, supervision should be with a highly trained and qualified professional and be provided in regular sessions of one to two hours, individually or in groups.
A strategic approach and an action plan are needed when designing supervision programmes to enhance wellbeing, psychological resilience and maintain professional reflective practice for all fee-earners, managers, partners or senior leadership teams.
Alongside supervision, I also champion preventative approaches such as one-to-one executive coaching and psychotherapeutic support to enhance and maintain wellbeing and deal with matters quickly and compassionately.
Wellbeing for everyone
Within the profession the aim is not just to support those experiencing psychological distress – including disorders such as depression, anxiety or psychosocial states associated with significant distress, impairment in functioning, or risk of self-harm – but also to explore how individuals and teams can be supported to proactively maintain wellbeing. In summary, these are some of my key recommendations:
- Change your organisational culture, promote the importance of supervision, inclusivity and staff psychological support. An important first step is identifying and engaging key stakeholders in that conversation.
- Provide basic training on the skills required to support individuals within the organisation – this will foster an environment in which staff can develop psychological resilience.
- Invest in regular monthly supervision for staff alongside additional catchups and appraisals.
- Have discussions about good practice across different areas of legal practice.
Case study 1
“We employ 64 people in four cities and have a turnover of about £6.6m. We use Kerry Slater as an independent psychotherapist as a resource any of our team can access (funded by the firm) whenever they need.
As a manager, too often a member of our team may turn to us with an issue which is in fact a mental-health-related problem. I do not have the training to deal with that, which can lead to either a lack of sympathy (the good old ‘get on with it’ approach) or, conversely, over-sympathy (because I mistake a proper problem for upset). Having access to a resource like Kerry enables that element of the management role to be dealt with by a specialist, allowing me to get on with managing.
A key benefit of specialists is that they have the skills to separate out those having a genuine mental health problem from what might be described as the ‘worried well’. This means that, in turn, appropriate and problem-specific steps can be taken. For those with significant mental health challenges, an intervention can (hopefully) prevent them reaching crisis point. In contrast, the ‘worried well’ are assisted with, for example, coping strategies as opposed to time off. Either way, having access to a specialist both targets the actual problem and from a commercial perspective gets team members ‘back on the road’ sooner.
Of wider benefit to the managers of the firm, a specialist can help identify themes which may be starting to become problems. Although Kerry’s sessions are 100% confidential, if there are work-related challenges that affect a number of the team then – with permission – she can feed those back to me, meaning issues can be addressed prior to them becoming real problems.
On a practical level, she is an instant resource, in contrast to a team member seeing a GP, getting signed off from work and then referred to an NHS resource that can take months. Kerry is instant support, which is a good in and of itself, but from a commercial perspective leads to a speedier recovery and return to productivity.
Finally, she can be an advocate for the team member (again, with permission) – able to communicate to management about an issue which the firm can address or deal with sensitively as opposed to it becoming a problem.
The simplest summary I can give is that we have tried a few things since we started trading in 2016, some of which have worked better than others. There is no way we would change having this resource for the team. Definitely worth it.”
– James Brown, managing partner, Hall Brown Family Law
Case study 2
“I was fortunate to be able to access support from Kerry, who had been appointed as an independent psychotherapist by Hall Brown. While this service is funded by Hall Brown, individuals are Kerry’s clients, and therefore have a relationship of confidentiality. I know that this can be a concern for employees particularly, as they need to feel able to speak freely about any matter without any implications upon their employment. Kerry absolutely delivers this but also is a fantastic support if a client wants to address a mental health issue or the like with their employer, which is ultimately beneficial for all concerned. Kerry has provided invaluable support on workload, difficult clients, management of stress and anxiety and addressing personal problems, which sadly can have an impact on an employee’s ability to perform. I have no hesitation in recommending Kerry to any firm that’s considering offering this brilliant service and to the individuals that may use her.”
For more information, visit: www.theworkplacecollective.co.uk