Legal employers are investing heavily in staff wellbeing to ensure they are functioning well and to boost productivity and retain talent

We are all familiar with the macho 1980s-style ‘greed is good’ maxims. If you want a friend, get a dog; when the going gets tough, the tough get going; if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But how many kinder expressions do we know that advocate the opposite?

There are no cliches about the importance of achieving a good work-life balance. Aphorisms on the subject of coping with stress, depression, burnout and the plethora of other conditions that affect a significant proportion of the solicitors’ profession are rarely deployed – which seems strange considering they could apply to so many people working in legal services.

A 2012 Law Society survey of 2,267 practising certificate holders found that 95% reported having negative stress in their working lives, while 17% went further, reporting ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ levels of stress at work. Stress can, and often does, lead to mental health problems, including breakdowns, physical illnesses, difficulty concentrating, alcohol or drug abuse, friction at home – and even suicide.

This is not news, but it is something that is easily forgotten when the economy is in the doldrums and so many are worried about losing their jobs. A growing number of law firms and businesses employing lawyers, however, have recognised the gravity of the problem and have put measures in place to promote what has come to be called ‘wellbeing’.

Wellbeing is defined as feeling good and functioning well. An internet search brings up hundreds of websites devoted to the subject – some selling courses, some advising on depression, mental health and alcohol consumption, and others, such as the New Economics Foundation site, giving ‘Five ways to wellbeing’. These five ways, briefly, consist of: connecting with the people around you; being active through cycling, walking or other forms of exercise; taking a keener interest in the world around you; continuing to learn by taking up a new hobby or skill; and giving, by doing something nice for a friend or stranger. The argument goes that anyone doing one of these five things is likely to be: enjoying good relationships; fit and healthy; and a sharp-minded, enquiring team player – qualities that would benefit a firm or in-house legal department.

Wellbeing will also, it is claimed, counter the rise in ‘presenteeism’ – a manifestation of which is attending work when ill. Presenteeism is blamed for reducing productivity levels at work. According to research by business psychology company Robertson Cooper, productivity levels for employees who feel ill drops from 75% on ‘normal days’ to 55% on ‘sick days’. People go to work when sick for several reasons, the most common being the fear of losing their job if they take sick leave or fear of falling behind with an already excessive workload.

LawCare, a charity which helps lawyers deal with issues such as stress, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, panic attacks and related emotional difficulties, is firmly committed to wellbeing. Its website includes a ‘Wellbeing Portal’, with an online questionnaire (a ‘lifestyle assessment’) that lawyers are invited to complete and which almost instantly produces a 21-page report with recommendations on ‘stress reduction and stress management’. The report supplies a breakdown of how well the lawyer is coping with stress and what techniques – if any – he or she is currently using to deal with it. Sections cover all aspects of a lawyer’s life, including relationships at work and at home, symptoms of stress and the work environment. Each section is graded from ‘little or no stress’, ‘not much stress’, ‘average stress’ to ‘above average stress’ and ‘high stress’.

But is all the hype around wellbeing just wishful thinking, merely the latest species of management-speak to be replaced next year by a newer fad? Or is the time and resources that law firms have invested in wellbeing proof that it genuinely has something to offer?

Increasing awareness

City firm Herbert Smith Freehills dispute resolution partner Ian Gatt QC has been pioneering the firm’s wellbeing programme since its inception in 2009. He is convinced of its worth. ‘Aside from the personal impact, if you wear people out with stress and overwork, you lose talent,’ he says. ‘The recession is bringing its own strains to an already stressed profession. We decided to take a hard look at mental health issues and to de-stigmatise mental illness so that people can discuss it as freely as they would a physical ailment.’

The firm provides training for all partners and employees on how to recognise the signs of stress in colleagues and how to point them towards help. It is also running a series of mental health awareness seminars with psychoanalyst Mary Bradbury. These have included role-plays by professional actors acting out stressful situations before an audience made up of all levels of seniority within the firm and then stopping mid-performance to elicit feedback.

Gatt says: ‘It’s good to have other people appreciate that your job – whether you’re a partner, associate, PA or business services professional – can be stressful.’

The firm recently kick-started its wellbeing programme anew by inviting celebrity and qualified psychotherapist Ruby Wax to make a presentation and answer audience questions on mental health issues in the workplace. For the future, the firm is considering including training in ‘mindfulness’, a form of meditation practitioners claim brings peace and calmness to a frantic world. ‘It is easy to dismiss things as fads,’ says Gatt, ‘but mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism.’

Is there any proof that wellbeing actually works? ‘There is anecdotal rather than statistical proof,’ says Gatt.He is aware of some people who, but for the programme’s de-stigmatisation of mental illness and stress, would not have come back to the firm after their sickness absence. Some of them have subsequently been promoted to partnership or other senior positions, he adds.

Magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer,  equally committed to its wellbeing programme, has invested in a wellbeing suite comprising a gym and two studios for classes in yoga, aerobics, kick-boxing and other healthy pursuits. There is a doctor, dentist, physiotherapist and masseur on site, and a psychologist visits to hold open sessions on mental resilience. The firm was the legal provider for the London 2012 Olympics, and invited athletes and coaches to address staff about diet, fitness, the importance of adequate rest and sleep, and psychological wellbeing generally.

But is all this largesse just a cynical ploy, disguised as compassion, to keep fee-earners on top form in order to get even more billable hours out of them? Head of London HR Jill Hoseason says: ‘There is cynicism about wellbeing, but it’s only right that employers should want to see people perform at their best. There is a strong business case, certainly, but there is also a strong case for supporting people as individuals.’

Hoseason adds that wellbeing has its fun side, such as the firm’s Walking Challenge that took place in the wake of the London Olympics. Staff were issued pedometers and the race was on for the team that first clocked up enough miles to reach the Russian Black Sea port of Sochi, the venue for the 2014 winter Olympics. ‘We are now looking for a second challenge,’ Hoseason says. ‘The Walking Challenge was not a one-off event but part of a sustainable programme of encouraging wellbeing.’

National firm Hill Dickinson runs a comprehensive wellbeing programme for its 175 partners, 1,350 lawyers and other staff in eight offices in the UK and overseas. HR systems and benefits adviser Jane Walker says ‘stress awareness’ is essential in the ‘naturally stressful environment of a law firm’, which is why the firm’s managers are being trained to recognise stressed colleagues and take the appropriate steps.

Occupational health assessments are also part of the programme, Walker says, with the firm holding regular ‘wellbeing medicals’ to check cholesterol levels and body mass index, along with giving nutritional advice for weight management and daily fibre consumption.

Walker adds: ‘We will soon set up financial health clinics to help people with money worries and a pension broker will be holding workshops on retirement planning. Our wellbeing programme is textbook: improving morale and health for better performance.’

Outside view

So what do healthcare professionals say about such wellbeing programmes?

Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, is unequivocal in his backing of wellbeing initiatives. He says there are three stages to wellbeing that all law firms should embrace. The first and third stages are promoting good mental health to keep people well in the first place and providing access to psychological help when the sufferer returns to work.

‘What is missing is the stage in the middle,’ Bell says, ‘when the sufferer is drifting towards mental sickness, unrecognised and unhelped. Line managers have the responsibility to recognise the illness and stop it escalating. They need to know how to have the conversation, which many find awkward because it’s a mental, not physical, illness. They must be willing to adjust work routines, recommend where to find help – even it’s just going to the GP – and make their colleagues believe that their problem is being treated as something natural and normal, which it undoubtedly is’.

Managing stress

Andy Bell from the Centre for Mental Health, while not denigrating the benefits of wellbeing, called for the problem of mental illness to be kept in proportion. He says: ‘Working is good for your mental health, whereas there is evidence that the reverse is true with unemployment. What is more, stress is not an illness. Some stress is positively helpful in that it motivates you to get things done, on time and to an appropriate standard.

‘But toxic amounts of stress can be damaging to your performance and health overall. It may come as a surprise, however, that by and large people experiencing severe stress and anxiety are reacting to events outside the workplace – relationship breakdowns, money problems, bereavements.’

Bell believes depression, more than stress, is ‘often the biggest issue’, with one in six people in any workplace suffering from it at any one time. ‘Sufferers may be in denial,’ he says, ‘but the best workplaces are the ones that acknowledge depression.’


He adds: ‘What is desperately needed, of course, is line-manager training in how to deal with mental illness. The centre has done such training with Rolls-Royce and Tate & Lyle, but – and it’s still early days – not with any law firms yet.’

Law firms may not have yet signed up for mental health and wellbeing training, but then again perhaps they do not need the assistance of mental health professionals, such as the centre, because scratch the surface and it becomes apparent that many firms, large and small, already have an established wellbeing initiative.

For example, niche corporate immigration firm Laura Devine Solicitors, with just five partners, hosts three yoga classes a week, along with pilates, circuit training and personal trainer sessions. A fruit bowl is delivered every week and, periodically, a chef visits the office to demonstrate how to barbecue a healthy meal.

Personal assistant Louise Woodhouse says: ‘It’s easier than going to the gym and people feel better and happier because they are getting regular exercise. It’s something we all really value because the firm takes on board our suggestions for new activities.’

At the other end of the spectrum is national firm Shoosmiths, with 130 partners, 10 offices, and more than 700 lawyers and legal advisers. HR director Louise Hadland says Shoosmiths’ wellbeing strategy is firm-wide and actively supported by the management board at the top of the business.

She insists: ‘Wellbeing is not a bolt-on initiative; you cannot just tag it on to your business and hope it will work. It needs passionate supporters throughout the firm at all levels – after all, you can’t have managers wondering where you are when you have gone for a run.’

In Shoosmiths’ case, Hadland says, the programme evolved from what the firm has been doing for the last 13 years – putting staff at the centre of everything it does. ‘We have had fruit bowls in our offices for 10 years now, for example,’ she said. Hadland adds that Shoosmiths differentiates itself by encouraging a better work-life balance than other firms. ‘If presenteeism is an issue for the profession, then it is less so at Shoosmiths than elsewhere,’ she claims.

Does she have any advice for those firms which have still to begin their own wellbeing programmes? ‘There are so many bodies out there keen to assist, such as the NHS, the British Heart Foundation and other charities. You just need to ask.’


Support and advice

Aims to help create a society in which people with mental health problems enjoy equal chances in life

Practical advice about wellbeing

Guidelines for managing stress at work

Charity providing support for lawyers suffering stress or other related conditions

Tackles issues around depression

Information and support for sufferers

Mental health information for employers

De-stigmatising mental illness

Support for depressed individuals, in particular those considering suicide

Educational charity providing advice on alcohol consumption

Advice on alcohol consumption

Mental health charity

De-stigmatising mental illness

Information about mental illness

Fighting discrimination and stigma around mental illness