Posted by Andrew Davies, managing director of Legal Futures Associate SpeechWrite Digital
Around one in every four people in the UK experiences some type of mental health problem each year. According to a review of mental health and employment by Thriving at Work, mental health issues cost employers between £33bn and £42bn a year, with an annual hit to the UK economy of between £74bn and £99bn.
Anxiety and depression are the most common conditions and, although it has been proven that work is generally beneficial for wellbeing (eg, see this independent review of the evidence on the relationship between work, health and wellbeing), workplace stress can also lead to mental health problems.
Lawyers, it seems, especially junior lawyers, are particularly affected by stress and mental ill health.
Avoiding stress at work
According to a survey of 1,000 British workers, lawyers are the second most stressed professionals in the country. Geoff Bird, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, claims: “All law firms say they have an issue with stress.”
So, what exactly is stress in the workplace and how can it be tackled?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. It has come up with six main areas which should be monitored and managed by employers to help prevent stress in the workplace:
Demands – if too many demands are made by employers, their employees can become overloaded with work, which is unhealthy for mental health and productivity.
Control – it is important for staff feel they have a certain amount of control over their work, otherwise performance issues can arise, along with stress.
Support – managers need to ensure that members of staff feel they can approach them and discuss any problems at work, providing requisite support to minimise any undue stress.
Relationships – the absence of a harmonious environment can lead to bullying amongst colleagues, one of the leading causes of stress and consequent mental health problems.
Role – it is crucial that employees understand their role within a team and the business in order to avoid job anxiety.
Change – people are used to routine, and any sort of change at work can cause uncertainty and anxiety, so change management within organisations is vital to minimise stress levels.
The HSE has developed a management standards workbook which provides “a systematic approach to implementing an organisational procedure for managing work-related stress” . Amongst the proposed methods of reducing stress is a focus on flexible working schedules to help staff cope with domestic commitments.
Acas also provides various resources for managing mental health in the workplace – including a framework for positive mental health at work. One of the key points mentioned in the framework is to support a work-life balance.
Creating the right work-life balance to improve mental health
A healthy working life can help promote overall wellbeing. However, it is crucial that a balance is drawn between work and other more personal aspects of life, such as relationships, family, hobbies and activities, relaxation and sleep.
Even lawyers who enjoy their work usually need to maintain some level of separation between their professional and personal lives. In the 21st century ‘always on’ culture, where smartphones are used to message friends and answer work emails at the same time, ensuring that one has enough ‘down time’ to de-stress from the pressures of work is vital.
However, creating a work-life balance does not mean reverting to the traditional law firm 9-5 office culture; instead it’s about setting aside enough time for all aspects of life – and actually new ways of working, coupled with modern technology, can help to achieve a better work-life balance for legal professionals.
Agile working with boundaries
The following definition of ‘agile working’ has been used by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion: “Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver ‘best in class’ value and customer service.
“It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways, which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed.”
Many law firms have introduced forms of flexible working to help their employees optimise their work-life balance, a trend which emerged in Scandinavian countries leading the way in gender equality rights and which allowed working parents (both mothers and fathers) to juggle childcare responsibilities with their work duties.
Forward-thinking companies around the world have gradually adopted agile working policies, and the legal sector – traditionally regarded as somewhat resistant to change – has made huge strides in this regard. According to a survey of major law firms from across the EMEA regions by CBRE, at 60% London leads the way in terms of the percentage of law firms offering some form of agile workspace.
Although one of the criticisms levelled against the rise of ‘agile’ has been that work can encroach upon home life, this can be avoided by setting boundaries (eg, lawyers working from home can set a cut-off time of 7pm after which they won’t reply to work-related emails until the next day).
The flip-side, of course, is that by avoiding a commute to work, fee-earners who are able to take advantage of agile working will have more time to themselves and their families, which may improve their overall sense of wellbeing.
Technology can help to facilitate agile working and therefore contribute to a better work-life balance. For example, digital dictation tools designed for legal professionals reduce the need to rely on office-based secretarial support and provides the flexibility for lawyers to work on documents from home or any other convenient location.
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