There is no pithy term akin to ‘greenwashing’ for employers which outwardly champion mental health, yet preside over dysfunctional – even Darwinian – workplaces.

Paul Rogerson

Paul Rogerson

‘Wellbeing washing’ is clunky, but it is at least alliterative.

Are some law firms guilty of ‘wellbeing washing’? That could be inferred from an open letter to the profession from Mindful Business Charter, which points out that lawyers suffer some of the highest levels of mental distress. The profession is structured to incentivise long hours and the subjugation of an employee’s own needs. Being ‘on call’ for the client remains more common than many care to let on.

‘Partners need to have an honest discussion with each other as to their values and the balance between the profitability of the firm and the lives of the people who work in it,’ the letter opines.

All very sound. Yet in law as elsewhere, there is growing pushback here. Sceptics argue that the burgeoning wellbeing ‘industry’ is seeking to pathologise the human predicament itself. To feel negative emotions at work is not mental illness per se, and nor is feeling stressed necessarily evidence of oppression, they argue.

It is certainly legitimate to ask where the boundaries should lie. Mindful Business Charter argues that there should be regulations in the Health and Safety at Work Act for ‘psychological risks’ – as there are for lifting heavy objects and handling toxic chemicals. That is a dubious analogy. I find it hard to conceive how measures of ‘psychological risk’ would be framed and enforced. (Discrimination, harassment, bullying and so on are very different matters, and already covered by employment law and SRA regulation.)

There is also human agency to consider. We all make choices and are free to regret them. Ambitious people who choose challenging careers know the high rewards dangled before them come at a price. I can’t believe anyone who trains at a big City firm expects anything other than a very testing and occasionally stressful examination of their capabilities and endurance.

In the end, the market regulates anyway. Productivity is down across law firms as a whole partly because solicitors are increasingly mindful of work-life balance. They choose to work for firms which allow them fewer billable hours than before; and move on if that option is absent. Most still make a very good living.