The Case for Wellbeing in the Legal Sector
With cases of burnout, stress and work-related mental health issues on the rise, the conversation has shifted towards the need for a kinder, more human approach to work – one where employers play a central role in ensuring the wellbeing of their staff. This is slowly being reflected in HR and management practices, where we are now seeing a greater focus on individual needs, rather than a purely results-driven agenda.
This cultural shift may come naturally to vibrant new start-ups, but what about those areas of business that have a well-established tradition of long hours and hyper-competitive workplaces, such as the legal sector?
All about the billables
Ask any young lawyer about their work-life balance and you’ll understand just how brutal the legal world can be. The financial model of law firms is built around billable hours, and the more hours a lawyer bills, the more valuable they are to the firm. Over the years, this led to a culture of long hours and professional exhaustion, as firms put billables and results ahead of individual wellbeing.
This approach has simply been accepted as the way it is. Lawyers know the game when they sign up – and if they didn’t like it, they can always do something else. From the firms’ perspective, the sink-or-swim nature of this work helps filter out those that can’t cut it. This super-competitive atmosphere has made it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to admit that one is struggling with their workload, stress, or work-related mental health issues.
The result is an environment where lawyers are forced to accept workloads and working hours that would make your average employee’s eyes water. The extent of this was revealed in a recent survey by Legal Cheek, which showed the average time that legal trainees and junior associates arrive and leave work in various UK law firms. The results highlighted the gruelling schedule that up-and-coming lawyers are expected to keep, with one firm’s average leave time being 10:01 pm.
Popular films and TV shows portray this aspect of the legal world as glamorous, even desirable, as a group of good-looking young lawyers in expensive attire pull yet another all-nighter. But what about their mental and physical wellbeing? What about their lives and relationships outside of work? What about all those talented lawyers who are put off a legal career as a result?
The legal sector turns a corner
While the legal world is still as competitive as ever, and probably always will be, recent research by HR in Law, in partnership with AON, has revealed that firms are now at least taking mental health and wellbeing seriously.
According to the report, health and wellbeing has risen-up the agenda in 2019, with 60.4% of firms having a wellbeing strategy in place, versus 43.31% in 2017. The future looks brighter too, with 20.8% of firms that do not yet have a strategy planning to implement one within the next 12 months.
Of the firms that do have a health and wellbeing strategy, the most popular areas covered are mental and physical health, at 98.3% and 93.1% respectively, followed by financial and social support. The story is similar for firms planning to introduce a strategy, suggesting a collective acknowledgment of what legal professionals need.
Encouragingly, the report also revealed that 88.5% of firms agree or strongly agree that they are responsible for influencing employee health and changing behaviours – a statistic that flies in the face of the stereotypically ruthless legal environment.
Almost half of firms (48.3%) have made a financial commitment to health and wellbeing by allocating it a specific budget. For most firms (88.6%), this budget sits within HR, rewards and benefits, with the majority of resources split between education and prevention, access to treatment, and long-term support.
Commenting on the findings, Rob Hind, Chairman and Director, HR in Law, says: “The results from this survey reveal a much stronger emphasis on health and wellbeing, including workplace financial education and education. It’s clear that law firms are taking a much more proactive stance and working hard to ensure that there are effective wellbeing strategies in place.”
Finding a balance
The legal sector will always be a highly demanding environment – and with the strict educational requirements and handsome pay packages that come with the territory, you’d expect nothing less. But that doesn’t have to come at the cost of mental and physical wellbeing.
Given the grueling hours that many young lawyers still put in each week, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go. But the fact that the legal world is taking ownership of this issue is very encouraging and reflects the wider shift towards a kinder, more human workplace.
Ultimately, this new approach can only benefit the legal sector. Happy, healthy employees are more likely to be on top of their game than those who are stressed and exhausted.