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Mental health a bigger threat to law firms than tech, staff retention

Mills Oakley CEO John Nerurker extended R U OK day to 10 weeks. 

To do this, Mills Oakley pushed its R U OK activities out over 10 weeks instead of the traditional single day.

“We [wanted to] put emotional literacy and social connectedness front-of-mind for an extended period, rather than as a one-off exercise.”

Johnson Winter & Slattery managing partner Peter Slattery said: “It has been a year of constant change. This has probably been the only thing that has been consistent throughout the year.

“Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of our people has been particularly challenging – everyone responds to crises like this in different ways.”

Mr Slattery said the firm had last year “increased training for managers and business leaders, equipping them with the skills required to identify issues and facilitate wellbeing within their teams”.

The increased action on mental health signals a shift for the legal sector, which has been slow to enact meaningful changes to protect staff wellbeing. This has been despite the high-pressure tasks, overwork and perfectionism that dominate the sector, making lawyers leading candidates for depression and anxiety.

Hall and Wilcox managing partner Tony Macvean noted that “many of us [have] felt anxious or helpless because of COVID-19”.

Lander & Rogers’ Genevieve Collins says staff wellbeing has been the main priority. 

Even at Lander & Rogers, which has a better track record than most firms in managing staff wellbeing, chief executive partner Genevieve Collins said that “our people’s mental and physical health has been our main priority” in the last year.

The isolation wrought by lockdown was a key cause of the increased concern around mental wellbeing, Baker & Mackenzie national managing partner Anthony Foley said.

“The biggest challenge [of the pandemic] has perhaps been helping our people with the uncertainty, isolation and fatigue of a really difficult work environment.”

Sparke Helmore managing partner Phillip Salem heard the same from employees, who said that communication with colleagues and social isolation had been hardest aspects of the pandemic.

Like many firms, Sparke Helmore rolled out a slew of online social events, intra-firm competitions and increased mental wellbeing checks and support in response.

Industry leaders also hoped that the industry-wide shift to flexible work forced by the pandemic would lead to permanent improvements to staff wellbeing and work-life balance.

King & Wood Mallesons chief executive partner Berkeley Cox said firms had a “once in a generation opportunity to embed a culture that truly values flexibility and recognises the benefits of both working from home and from the office” after COVID-19 forced the world’s largest “working from home experiment”.

Ashurst global managing partner Paul Jenkins added: “An increased focus on wellbeing and flexibility have both brought positive changes to our firm and, we believe, the entire industry.

“Law is a demanding profession, but we believe [by maintaining flexibility] we can meet client needs while fostering a culture that empowers people to work in a way that is the most effective for them professionally and personally.”

K&L Gates managing partner Nick Nichola also hoped it would permanently reframe the way law firms connected with their people.

“In many respects, we now know more about each other as people and this positive outcome from 2020 will change our culture, for the better,” he said.

“Check-ins with our people, while virtual, have become increasingly meaningful, purposeful and intentional than they may have been before.”

For immediate support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or beyondblue 1300 46 36.


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