Shifting the burden: support for stress
The suicide last year of a senior local authority solicitor who felt unable to cope with the demands placed on him following a 30% cut to his department’s budget shocked the profession.
The pressure to do more with less is evident across all areas of practice, in local government, in-house, as a sole practitioner, in a small or medium-sized practice or in a major City firm, and at all levels - from heads of legal to law students, with those providing support commenting on the increasing number of calls from young lawyers and trainees.
The inquest into the death of David White, head of legal services at Suffolk County Council, heard he was working weekends and long hours following the budget cuts. He committed suicide four days after becoming (in addition to his other duties) an interim monitoring officer to replace one who had left.
‘The tragic news made us all think about our own working lives,’ says Bev Cullen, chair of Solicitors in Local Government (SLG). ‘There are lots of positives to working in local government but you can’t ignore the context in which we are working and the pressures it is putting on everyone, from junior lawyers to heads of legal.’
The legal health support charity LawCare, which runs a confidential helpline, says seven out of 10 callers ring because of stress; blaming workload, financial problems, disciplinary issues, bullying, actual or threatened redundancy and relationship problems. Over a quarter of callers suffering from clinical depression or alcohol abuse blame workplace stress for their illness.
Of the calls involving stress, two-thirds are from women and four out of 10 from either trainees or those with fewer than five years’ post-qualification experience. At the same time, increasing numbers are accessing information through LawCare’s website - with 56,000 hits in the first five months of 2012. Visitors to the site viewed documents offering support 24,000 times.
The most visited page was the alcohol treatment centre page, closely followed by stress and depression, then alternative careers.
While stress can be a positive force, if it becomes all-consuming it can lead to debilitating and sometimes career-ending depression. Jean Booth, a former partner in a small law firm, wrote in the Gazette last month how her ‘body and mind ground to a halt’ after recurrent stress-related insomnia and depression.
In May, former Hogan Lovells litigation partner Christopher Grierson was jailed for three years after pleading guilty to defrauding his firm of £1.27m. In mitigation, the court heard how he threw himself into work after suffering depression for many years. When cracks started to show, the firm expressed concern that he was driving himself too hard and he agreed to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed bi-polar disorder. But his private life continued to fall apart.
It is a tough market across the board, as the latest annual survey of more than 350 HR professionals across the economy - including law firms - by City law firm Speechly Bircham and King’s College London shows. It found smaller, stretched workforces are driving higher levels of stress, presenteeism, employee disengagement and staff turnover.
So how can individuals protect themselves and what should people managers in law firms, companies and government be doing to protect their employees from burnout, stress, and physical and psychological illness which can have such heavy personal and economic costs?
The Law Society is, for the first time, to include research on members’ well-being as part of its membership survey this summer. Its pastoral care helpline receives about 2,000 calls a year, with members seeking help on personal, financial, professional and employment problems. Nasrin Master, the society’s practice advice service manager, says the helpline is primarily a referral service, but all the solicitors answering calls have been in private practice so they can offer practical advice, with half the calls being dealt with internally.
She says they have noted a ‘sharp rise’ in the number of training contract issues. Where callers are seeking legal advice, they are referred to the Solicitors Assistance Scheme (SAS). Other callers are referred to LawCare and SBA The Solicitors’ Charity. The three support charities work together closely while remaining distinct in the help they offer.
LawCare, for instance, has the widest reach across the profession - taking in all legal professionals from paralegals to judges - while SBA helps solicitors and their dependants with loans and grants. The SAS provides a panel of solicitor volunteers who give an hour’s free confidential legal advice to fellow solicitors, their families and employees on professional and personal problems. They can give further advice but this will be at normal rates. Both refer those in need of counselling to LawCare.
‘There are a lot of desperate people in the profession,’ says LawCare co-ordinator Ann Charlton. ‘It is very important people know we exist, but it is difficult to get the message out there. We want to be busier than ever, going to more conferences, giving more talks.
‘We should be part of the profession’s risk management in helping people recognise when they are suffering from stress, advising them how to avoid it, what to do when they find they can’t cope, as well as helping firms support their staff in difficult times.’
LawCare is funded by a per capita fee for every judge, solicitor, barrister, chartered legal executive, paralegal and barrister’s clerk. It provides free CPD-accredited presentations tailored both to staff, enabling them to cope with the pressures placed upon them, and to partners, helping them recognise problems and prevent the problems stress can cause from harming their firm. So far this year, it has made presentations to more than 2,000 lawyers.
The helpline volunteers come from across the profession. ‘They are a wonderful bunch of people,’ says Charlton. ‘Many know first-hand what callers are experiencing, though we have a strict rule that they must be at least two years free of the issue. We try to match gender, location and subject matter, so if a solicitor rings up who is drinking too much and fears losing their job, we will put them in touch with a lawyer who has had an alcohol issue.’ SBA made grants and loans totalling more than £1.7m to 344 beneficiaries last year. An increasing number of applicants are young, with some unable to work due to stress-related breakdown. The charity supports them in returning to work or retraining if that is not an option.
Just under half its £16m fund comes from conditional donations from unclaimed client funds. Last year, the conditional donations, which have to be repaid if the client materialises, increased by 70% from £650,000 in 2010 to £1.1m. SBA’s priority for 2012 is to raise its profile within the profession. Martin says: ‘Every charity looks for extra donations and income streams but our top strategic priority is finding more beneficiaries.
‘One of our aims is to support transitions to more sustainable lifestyles. We want to get people back on their feet rather than just dole out cash. We don’t want to make people dependent - we want to make them independent.’ David Morgan chairs the SAS panel. Set up in 1972, it currently has 80 volunteers who can help with regulatory and employment matters, partnership disputes and insolvency. It also provides a pro bono duty solicitor at SDT pre-listing meetings. It receives over 1,000 calls a year, with more people contacting the volunteers directly through the website. It is exempt from disclosing information to the SRA, so callers are assured of confidentiality.
Morgan says it has approached the Law Society for more funding because it believes that issues involving age discrimination and staff management are likely to grow. Other trends include calls from trainees whose firms are trying to cancel their training contracts and from firms worried about a visit from SRA inspection teams.
The sources of stress are many and varied. Sarah Bolt, of the Junior Lawyers Division executive committee, says the ‘mentality of law firms needs to change from the top down’, so suffering from stress is not seen as a weakness but something that should be supported at every level.
Problems can arise when supervisors have not been trained so they ‘belittle’ junior staff, she says. ‘Many people expect junior members of the profession to be up to the level they expect of qualified solicitors,’ she says. ‘There is no account [taken of the] difference between the levels in training. This means that many junior members often feel exploited and unable to keep up, despite the number of hours that they put in.’
A survey of students and graduates by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer found respondents had a ‘more holistic view’ than previous generations about achieving a work-life balance. However, trainee recruitment partner Simon Johnson noted: ‘Students need to be realistic about what it takes to become a high-flyer in the legal profession or anywhere else in the City. The financial rewards are good. But advising on the best mandates requires tremendous commitment.’
Alasdair Douglas, chair of the City of London Law Society, says its Associates Forum looked at the ‘trials and tribulations’ of being a young lawyer in 2010 and recommended flexible working and better partner recognition of their work. But he says it is significant the forum did not address stress as a separate issue. ‘Young people coming to us are pretty high-flyers. It is challenging. But the insecurity of a new job, peer pressure, hoping to get kept on at the end of a training contract, are part of the job,’ he says.
‘It is important to distinguish between clinical stress and depression and finding the job blooming hard. Through appraisals and knowing the people you work with, you can sense if something is going wrong beyond that. Firms are acutely aware of their role as employers in getting that right.’ Spotting when someone may be at risk is key in any area of practice. But this can be particularly hard for sole practitioners. Hilary Underwood, immediate past-chair of the Sole Practitioners Group, highlights ‘loneliness’ as one of the sources of stress.
‘Many SPs may not openly admit to this, particularly as we have chosen to practise alone,’ she says, ‘but it can be a lonely job and the lack of colleague-contact is certainly something that I underestimated when I opened up solo eight and a half years ago. Loneliness can be the breeding ground for worry, anxiety and fear. The old adage is very true - a problem shared is a problem halved.’
Money worries have been exacerbated by the changing legal landscape, with competition from larger firms, ABSs, the internet and DIY legal services taking their toll, while many SPs fear the new compliance regime and how it will be implemented, she says.
SPs can also feel trapped. ‘Getting out of practice can be a huge source of stress,’ she continues. ‘Exit strategies are few and far between - one of the largest obstacles is the cost of run-off cover. Many SPs simply cannot afford to stop practising even if they want to - unless they can find someone with whom to merge, or sell to, which is often easier said than done.’ But support is there. She says the SPG’s executive committee members offer pastoral care, while LawCare, the SAS and the SBA are ‘wonderful organisations, which have all been great supporters of SPs’.
For in-house lawyers, the pressures, says Nina Barakzai, chair of the Commerce and Industry Group, come from juggling the multiple demands on their time with the breadth and scope of the queries they receive while managing the legal risk for the business. She says the way in-house lawyers build their internal relationships influences how they cope. ‘Setting clear expectations gives the in-house lawyer some headroom to free up thinking time for risk management and to build processes and structures so they aren’t constantly fire-fighting.’
Local government also has its own particular pressures, says Cullen, highlighting cuts in government funding; no let-up in public expectations; pressure to do ‘more with less’ ; downgrading of some jobs; job insecurity; and ‘rhetoric from government ministers who don't always make you feel as valued as you should be’. She adds wryly: ‘A view has been expressed that, as solicitors are in daily conflict situations, they should be more able to deal with stress. I’m not convinced this is a reasonable conclusion to come to.’
So while you cannot eliminate stress, how can individuals and firms manage it positively? Practical tips include increasing exercise, improving diet, stopping smoking, and taking up holistic therapies such as the Alexander Technique. At work, relentless emails can create huge stress. Stephen Shepherd, in-house lawyer at Molson Coors, suggests: ‘Check your emails at certain times of the day, turn off your email notifications and alerts, and manage your inbox down to zero at the end of each day by deleting, scheduling, actioning or delegating. Looking at your emails throughout the day is like looking at all of your clients all at once with their various demands, knowing that you can’t action them all at the same time.’
Training provider Kaplan Altior offers a stress and time management course as an elective on its professional skills course. The company’s head, Chris Sweetman, says most of the delegates are trainees, but qualified lawyers also book places on the six-hour course to learn what causes stress, how it varies, what are the symptoms, how to separate healthy adrenalin from permanent stress, and how to assess their own stress levels.
City firms know their success globally depends on attracting and retaining the brightest lawyers. Hogan Lovells sets out its strategies on its website, which include a formal ‘women’s initiative’ to encourage women to stay and progress within the firm, affinity groups and employee networks, mentoring, diversity retreats (including a multi-day retreat in the US for the firm’s ethnically diverse, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, lawyers), widening access and work-life balance initiatives.
Clifford Chance has set an aspirational target that 30% of its partners will be women. It acknowledges this will take time but hopes to ease the stress of juggling work and family life with enhanced maternity/paternity policies, a flexible working policy which is open to everyone, an emergency childcare and homecare service, and childcare vouchers.
One option for larger firms is to buy support for their staff through commercial employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which offer 24-hour helplines, counselling and online interactive content. LawCare’s Charlton says the programmes can be a major asset: ‘The problem we find is that some people are wary because it is an employer provision.
‘We don’t fight them for business. If a caller comes to us and it transpires they need counselling, we would then turn to the EAP and ask them to step in. Usually, by this time, the caller has realised that the most important thing is to get well physically and mentally and that most people in the firm are aware why they are off work or having problems.
‘But the problem is some firms think that, by investing in an expensive EAP, they don’t need us. I am very grateful the programmes are there but there is still very much room for our service running alongside and we are trying very hard to work with them.’ She says LawCare’s strength is that it is free-standing. ‘Callers say they won’t go to the doctor because they are frightened of it being on their notes. Callers want to know what they should say at an interview if they have had a month off with stress. There is still a stigma with some employers but you have to remember you have to be physically and mentally well or you won’t be getting a job.’
In smaller firms, partners and principals can be very good at looking after their staff, while bigger firms have HR departments which should know their duties under health and safety regulations. However, the pressures on firms have been exacerbated by the recession, says fellow LawCare co-ordinator Trish McLellan: ‘People can feel trapped in a bad fit because there aren’t jobs to move to. Fear of redundancy is still great so people are afraid to take sick leave.
‘But anyone with any business sense would say providing a supportive environment means you get the best out of your employees with lower staff turnover, fewer mistakes and fewer burnouts.’
Having someone to turn to is critical. Barakzai says many in-house lawyers will still not talk openly about pressure and stress ‘despite a very real risk of burn-out through overload’, because they fear it may adversely affect their career paths.
However, she says many larger employers recognise this and implement EAPs as part of a package of flexible benefits for their employees. But if an in-house lawyer is under pressure and does suffer from depression, she says, it is still important for the employer to maintain adequate levels of supervision and management to spot any symptoms and take supportive action.
What is clear is that failing to support staff can have far-reaching consequences. Robert Thomas, employment partner with Speechly Bircham, says employers ignore the potent cocktail of leaner workforces, longer hours, and higher levels of stress, absence and discontent at their peril.
‘Increased stress from long hours can affect performance,’ he says. ‘If you close your mind to the cause and implement performance management processes that could be masking the true problems. If it results in disciplinary action and the employee argues it was out of their control, you could be looking at unfair dismissal. If you haven’t looked at the underlying reasons, there could be disability issues which could potentially mean unlimited compensation.’
There are also issues around the Working Time Regulations. ‘If staff don’t contract out of the regulations, it is not just a contractual issue, it is a potential criminal offence,’ he warns, ‘and even if staff do opt out, you still need to keep an eye on health and safety obligations’.
If someone goes on sick leave and then returns, occupational health involvement is important, he says. ‘If you don’t do anything about the workload or reduce stress, you could be on the hook for a PI claim. Failure to provide support can also have reputational issues. Barakzai says platforms such as Twitter may be used to comment on company practices. ‘Unless the organisation has robust monitoring and review of social media postings about itself, this channel may cause substantial brand damage until the issue is addressed.’
For many lawyers, it is about recognising they need help. Many find support through mentoring schemes, networking opportunities and soft skill courses offered by the special interest groups. The JLD, for example, has started running skills events for trainees, to mirror events for LPC students and newly qualifieds, which include a stress management class.
For Underwood, the best advice the SPG gives sole practitioners is to get involved in one of its local groups. ‘The best antidote to fear is hope in the future and that sort of positive approach comes from mutual encouragement and empathy,’ she says. ‘SPs should never be afraid or too proud to ask for help - fellow lawyers are not the “enemy’’.’
- For support, more information and case studies see features
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist
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