Firms that focus on the well-being of their staff and partners are the ones that will increasingly attract and retain the top legal talent over the coming years. But what exactly falls within the definition of “well-being” and are firms currently doing enough?
It’s not exactly news that being a lawyer is stressful. On International Mental Health Day last October, The Times ran an article specifically about mental health and lawyers, saying: “While mental illness can strike anyone at any time, lawyers in high-stress positions are thought to be particularly prone to it.” This is due, says the article, to the fact that lawyers tend to be highly ambitious perfectionists who carry a lot of responsibility.
That’s not to say it is only those at the top of the legal tree with the most responsibility who are feeling the strain. A survey of junior lawyers by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyer’s Division (JLD) last year revealed that 82% of those surveyed felt regularly or occasionally stressed and 26% felt extremely stressed.
Most tellingly of all, two-fifths have looked for another job as a result of stress levels at their current job. Kayleigh Leonie, the JLD’s Law Society council member, said of the results: “The legal profession is at risk of losing some of its best talent if employers do not begin to embrace their employees’ well-being as a key asset for their business.”
Alarmingly, many junior lawyers feel unable to ask for help, thinking it will be perceived as a sign of weakness. As the Times reports: “One of the many privileges of being at the top of the hierarchy is that support is on tap if things get tough. More junior staff might not feel so empowered.”
Some firms are heeding the calls to do more on mental health. Reed Smith, for example, last year launched ‘Wellness Works’, a firm-wide programme aiming to promote and support the well-being of its lawyers and staff.
According to Deloitte’s latest human capital trends survey, wellness is one of the top three trends shaping human capital. “As the line between work and life blurs, providing a robust suite of well-being programs focused on physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health is becoming a corporate responsibility and a strategy to drive employee productivity, engagement, and retention,” the report says.
There are some interesting points from the above quote and the report in general that law firms would be well advised to take note of:
Work-related stress is on the rise
Work-related stress is nothing new, but it is getting worse. This is largely due to the relentless pace of business today, driven by the always-on nature of digital devices and round-the-clock working styles. The endless stream of emails and messages means people find it virtually impossible to disconnect from their job, even on holiday. This is especially true of lawyers.
Well-being is not just about mental health
It is easy to think of well-being as being only or mainly about mental health, but it goes deeper than this. Deloitte lists “financial wellness, mental health, healthy diet and exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress management, as well as changes to culture and leadership behaviours to support these efforts” as falling under the wellness banner. To focus solely on mental health is partly missing the point. For example, research has found that student loan support is one of the most highly regarded well-being benefits for young people. Another is the opportunity to work as a volunteer during company time.
There is a substantial gap between what employees value and what companies offer
Deloitte says that two-thirds of organisations claim that the well-being of their staff is a vital part of their culture and brand. They recognise that it is a crucial measure of their ‘corporate citizenship’. We don’t have figures for law firms, but we would estimate that among the top firms most, if not all, would say staff well-being is an important issue.
What’s interesting is that there is a substantial gap between what employees value and what companies offer. For example, Deloitte cites the fact that 86% of employees would prefer a flexible schedule yet only 50% of companies offer one. Designated office space for wellness is valued by 70% of employees yet only 27% of firms offer it. There are similar discrepancies in relation to mental health counselling, the provision of healthy snacks, and reimbursement for well-being expenses.
Providing well-being benefits is an investment, not an overhead
Organisations that baulk at the potential cost of providing these well-being benefits are missing out. The report states: “There is growing evidence to support the idea that well-being drives performance. Research shows that the costs of lost productivity are 2.3 times higher than medical and pharmacy costs.”
Furthermore, a survey by Deloitte of major organisations has revealed that:
- 43% believed that well-being reinforces their organisation’s mission and vision;
- 60% reported that it improves employee retention;
- 61% said that it improves employee productivity and bottom-line business results.
The upshot is that firms should make well-being a top priority because it is an expected trade-off for the 24/7 nature of work and is the right thing to. But if those aren’t reasons enough, there will be real benefits for their productivity, talent retention and, ultimately, their bottom line.