Grasping the opportunity to lead wellbeing strategy in the legal sector

Leadership Development, Wellbeing Strategy

Wellbeing within the legal sector was a growing topic of discussion and action even prior to the arrival of Covid-19.

A significant influence on this increased focus on wellbeing was the publication of the International Bar Association Report – Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study.

The then President of the IBA, Horacio Bernardes Neto reflected on his motivations for commissioning the study by saying:, 

I had become increasingly concerned with all too frequent reports of substance abuse, severe depression, and suicide within the profession. Little did I or any of us know of the events that were to come. The devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction, and other such attacks on our wellbeing may have preceded the Coronavirus pandemic, but there is no question that it has exacerbated their impact.”

The IBA report highlights some significant issues facing the profession 

  • 1 in 3 respondents stated their work has a negative, or extremely negative impact on their wellbeing
  • The average overall WHO Mental Wellbeing Index score was 51% (The WHO recommends screening for depression for scores below 52%)
  • 41% of respondents would not discuss mental wellbeing concerns with their employer out of a concern it would have a negative impact on their career.
  • 82% of organisations say they take mental wellbeing seriously. But only 16% provide training for senior managers. 
  • 28% of respondents want to see improvements in workplace culture with improved respect and reduced poor behaviour. 

Identifying these challenges is a catalyst for positive changes in the legal sector

In a recent article for The Law Society, Professor Richard Collier finds lots of positive changes emerging. He identifies a range of initiatives as institutions like law firms, legal regulators and the law society all aspire to driving positive cultural change across the industry by putting wellbeing at the heart of future developments in the sector. Above all he acknowledges how the challenges faced by organisations in responding to Covid-19 have also been opportunities in demonstrating that change is possible. 

“If the legal profession can be as responsive and flexible as at the start of the first lockdown in 2020, this shows not only the resilience of individuals and organisations but also the adaptability of the legal community as a whole. If all this can happen, are the kinds of changes many of us would advocate for in advancing the wellbeing agenda, really so unimaginable?”

Whilst he also points to the risks involved in companies retreating back into ignoring the importance of wellbeing, there is a palpable sense of momentum. Companies wishing to be part of shaping the future of the profession can align with this movement and help it to grow. 

How can organisations in the Legal Sector build on the insights of the IBA Report?

Developing a wellbeing strategy is a challenge in any organisation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to a successful strategy and as Professor Collier puts it “there is no one ‘wellbeing problem’ in law”. Strategy must be tailored around the needs of the organisation and the sector and built out of rich insight about organisational and individual needs. 

What should Legal Sector organisations be considering when developing their Wellbeing Strategy? Here’s 5 things we think are important:

1. Create an open culture

Putting wellbeing at the heart of organisational culture is vital for the success of any wellbeing strategy. In a sector where 41% of employees feel that being open about wellbeing challenges with their employer would be career threatening this is even more vital. Framing wellbeing around measures of Mental Fitness, aligning these with corporate values and objectives and making it part of how employee performance is measured helps make wellbeing seem “important and something to share” rather than “a problem to be hidden.” 

2. Develop Mental Fitness Leaders

Creating organisations powered by Mental Fitness starts with leadership. The legal profession is populated with highly successful, high performing leaders. Using Transformational Coaching as the foundation of developing existing leadership whilst nurturing the next generation is vital. Creating Empathetic Leaders whose own performance is enhanced by a deep understanding of their purpose and their own Mental Fitness capabilities will help them to model this, both within the organisation and as agents of change within the wider profession. Being in the vanguard of increasing “training of senior management” from the current 16% in the IBA report is also something to shout about! 

3. Pioneer a flexible future

Professional services has always been defined by long hours, office based, working models. Covid-19 has shown how changing this is possible. Most organisations are exploring some variation of hybrid working as offices re-open, with the potential of remote working better understood. Taking the lead in shaping the future of flexible working will be key to being an organisational culture people want to be part of. Flexible working benefits (or presents challenges for) different people in different ways. Making flexible working one element of employee packages personalised around their Mental Fitness profile is one step in making sure hybrid practices and processes are designed to be flexible for everyone. And going beyond seeing hybrid working as simply “a few days working from home” to being an opportunity to redesign working practices to support talent development and create a leadership culture. 

4. Make diversity a performance driver

The IBA Report is stark reading regarding diversity: 

“Issues of equality, diversity and inclusion have an effect on, and are arguably at the heart of, the mental wellbeing of the legal profession. The nature and cause of difficulties experienced by specific groups, including younger, female, ethnic minority and legal professionals with disabilities must be understood, acknowledged and tackled.”

Here at Cognomie we need no convincing about the power of diversity to drive innovation and unlock business performance. Developing an organisational wellbeing strategy is potentially a huge opportunity to simultaneously strengthen the organisation’s approach to diversity, not least by involving a wide range of participants in shaping strategy and using deep insights about individual Mental Fitness as the starting point for defining strategic objectives. 

5. Seek partnerships and collaborations (and be loud and proud)

There is a momentum building in the legal profession around shaping the future of wellbeing with more and more organisations undertaking research, exploring best practice and developing new models of working. It is vital that organisations look outwards rather than inwards, seeking expertise from both with and without the sector and creating alliances and partnerships across organisations.  

Most importantly we need organisations themselves to lead the way in reversing the silence that has been too prevalent around Mental Fitness. Joyfully celebrating new approaches, sharing them loudly and making them an integral part of the reasons why people want to pursue purposeful careers at your organisation is a critical part of making Mental Fitness part of the conversation. 

Want to take this further?

Not got a Wellbeing Strategy, or you’d like to learn how we can help you make your existing strategy work harder, then we want to help you.

If your organisation is aiming to be in the vanguard of putting Mental Fitness at the heart of organisational development and you’d like help to take this further, we’d love to talk.

by | 1 Apr 2022

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