The hashtag #WorldMentalHealthDay trends every year on 10 October, with organisations, individuals and celebrities reminding people that it is good to talk to somebody if you are suffering from mental ill-health. However, it is easy to let the conversation be confined to that one celebrated day. The stigma around mental ill-health should be challenged all year round.
The Junior Lawyers Division carried out its third annual survey of members at the beginning of 2019. A range of questions was posed to gather data on the wellbeing of junior lawyers in England and Wales. The results were stark, but not surprising. In the month before taking the survey, more than 93% of respondents had experienced stress in their role at work. Almost a quarter reported that their stress was severe or extreme and, worryingly, one in 15 junior lawyers reported that they had experienced suicidal thoughts in the same time period.
Mental ill-health, however, is not confined to juniors. In another recent survey, some 63% of respondents of all PQE levels reported stress on a daily basis. It is clear that this is an issue law firms need to be alive to. It is often said that the legal industry is a challenging one; stress and pressure are an inevitable and integral part of the profession. The JLD would reply that this is an archaic and incorrect view, and we are passionate about changing attitudes towards mental wellbeing not just among juniors, but in the profession as a whole.
Conversations about mental wellbeing in the workplace have been developing in recent years, with many firms now priding themselves on measures to support their workforces. However, many firms do not have the resources to develop specific procedures.
Former Law Society Council member for junior lawyers (and employment solicitor) Kayleigh Leonie, supported by the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion team, has developed guidance for supporting wellbeing in the workplace. This is intended to help employers in tackling the issue of mental ill-health among employees, and to assist in promoting healthy workplaces. Sixty pages in total, the guidance has been designed for solicitors, managers and HR professionals to assist in learning and development, diversity and inclusion. It is a great tool which focuses on three key themes: culture; education and training; and support.
An organisation may have many policies in place to protect its workforce, but unless there is a real culture shift towards looking after the mental wellbeing of employees, little is likely to change. Organisations need to look internally at how their staff really feel in their day-to-day work lives. Are employees encouraged to regularly work through their lunch; to come in early and stay late; or to read emails while on holiday? Officially, this may not happen, but firms need to ask their employees what actually does happen so that they can take stock of what needs to change.
Education and training
Employees at all stages of their career will benefit from seminars and workshops on wellbeing-related topics. Many firms now offer meditation and mindfulness sessions to cope with stress. The Law Society also supports a Mindfulness in Law Group, which meets at the Law Society in Chancery Lane on the first Tuesday of every month. So even if a firm does not have the resources to put on seminars internally, employees could be encouraged to attend those sessions.
Training for managers is also really important to help improve mental wellbeing among employees. Managers should encourage their employees to develop their digital etiquette by not looking at or sending emails to others after a certain time, and also to speak up if they are under too much pressure.
As with the culture shift that is necessary in some firms, it is no use having policies if support is not provided by firms to implement those policies. A growing trend is for firms to train mental health first-aiders, who are able to spot the signs of others experiencing mental ill-health, listen in a non-judgemental way and then direct them to support.
Adequate supervision is also important for employees at all levels, and not just juniors. My motto is ‘every day is a school day’! Giving managers the time to invest in the learning and development of someone else is a great way for firms to support their employees. This will also help develop good relationships between employees of varying levels, allowing those with concerns about their mental wellbeing to feel like they can speak up.
Mental wellbeing among the legal profession is of vital importance if we are not to burn out, but continue to thrive. Firms are encouraged to access the wellbeing in the workplace guidance to help their employees look after their mental health. Don’t let the conversation be restricted to one October day a year.
Mollie Ferguson is a solicitor at Thomson Snell & Passmore LLP. She is an executive committee member of the Junior Lawyers Division