The wellbeing factor: Why law firms are prioritising employee health

Attune Flexible Jobs and Totum Partners have collaborated to examine issues around employee wellbeing in the legal profession. Here we compare a few firms in their approach to wellbeing, and explore why wellbeing is fast becoming a legal hot topic.

Employee wellbeing is one of those workplace issues that could easily get lost in the demands of doing business. And law firms perhaps haven’t built a reputation over the years for being particularly touchy-feely. Good compensation, yes. But there’s a prevailing perception that to enter law is to expect long hours and plenty of hard work.

But there is growing evidence that law firms are taking employee wellbeing – meaning both physical and mental health – very seriously. And perhaps more so because law can be stressful. ‘We know the legal sector is a high-pressure environment,’ says Dan Harris, Diversity, Inclusion and CSR Manager at Taylor Wessing. ‘Providing our people with the tools to become more resilient is beneficial both to our people and the firm.’

‘I think there is a recognition that we have a responsibility for the wellness of our people and that people are best placed to do their best work when they are well,’ agrees David Shields, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, UK/US and EMEA, Herbert Smith Freehills. ‘We work in high-pressured environments which can provide positive challenge and stimulation but which can also be stressful and there is a connection between high-stress and mental and physical wellness.’

‘Without focusing investment on people and their wellbeing, businesses suffer,’ adds Harris, emphasising the point that law firms well understand the link between happy, engaged employees and enhanced performance.

The talent factor

But wellbeing isn’t just imperative for business productivity. Law firms are competing for talent across sectors and geographies. ‘An engaged workforce is crucial to attract and retain talent and to embed a supportive and inclusive culture,’ says Harris. ‘Like all companies, law firms are looking to win the best talent. Increasingly, millennials are expecting a greater balance between work and home life. We are also seeing a trend with people increasingly moving from other sectors into law firms and visa versa. This is progressive and with it brings new ideas which ensure wellbeing remains high on the agenda.’

This thinking translates to some sophisticated wellbeing programmes too. At Pinsent Masons, for example, the wellbeing programme is based on three pillars: personal (mental and physical), social and financial. And it encompasses an array of offerings including: compensation and benefits, an Employee Assistance Programme (providing the means for employees to raise concerns), an employee-led Disability and Wellbeing group, private health insurance, yoga/pilates, massages, running clubs etc.  ‘Accessibility is key, so information on all topics can be found in one place, on the firm’s wellbeing portal,’ says Kate Dodd, the firm’s D&I Consultant.

Other firms are engaged in similar activity – sports and yoga classes, subsidised gym memberships, private medical insurance, numerous supportive networks (LGBT, gender, disability, to name a few) and employee assistance programmes appear particularly common. But perhaps what is striking is a focus among all these firms we interviewed on activity around mental health awareness. Herbert Smith Freehills’s approach, for example, includes a network of mental health mentors who are willing to discuss and provide mentoring support on mental health, regular panel and key note speaker events to raise awareness, stimulate discussion and challenge stigma. ‘We have run the “This is Me” campaign with people speaking out on their experience of mental health,’ says Shields.

Prioritising mental health

Harris thinks that in talking about mental health, Princes William and Harry have played no small part in raising awareness more broadly – it’s in the public eye, he says, shining a spotlight on wellness which transcends the home to the workplace. At Taylor Wessing, this translates to Mental Health Awareness Sessions, and a plan to train Mental Health First Aiders which is set to launch this this autumn. Pinsent Masons is also currently rolling out a new mental health strategy that will be fully embedded by 2020.

This year Simmons & Simmons held its first mental health awareness week. ‘It included talks on neuro science, mindfulness sessions, massages and local gym Nuffield Health held activities such as ‘mind ball’, an interactive concentration game. We are hoping to roll out some of these in the future on a permanent basis,’ says Beatrice Guard, HR Advisor. It’s extending out to clients too. ‘Just last week, we went to visit a client with a partner who wanted to meet with us to specifically talk about mental health,’ Joanna Perry, CR & Diversity said. ‘It is not part of our tender process but no doubt it will be. All clients ask for evidence for Diversity & Inclusion metrics so it’s just a matter of time for mental health and wellbeing.’

Mission critical: Flexibility

But for the new developments in this area, there is broad acceptance that one of the most important elements of wellbeing for today’s workforce is flexibility. At Simmons & Simmons flexibility is offered to everyone to manage work life balance better. ‘We were the first law firm that offered flexible working at candidate stage – it is not just a day one right, it’s a pre-day one right,’ say Perry and Guard. At Pinsent Masons, flexible and agile working is also offered to all lawyers and business operations teams. Details are included in a comprehensive Agile Working Guide, which explains the firm’s approach to flexible and agile working, giving real life examples and encouraging people to discuss it with their line managers. Interestingly, from September 2017, none of the Pinsent Mason’s senior leadership team will have a set desk (including the Managing Partner, Senior Partner and Operations Director). They will be completely agile.

Taylor Wessing meanwhile has also supported individuals to undertake a range of extra-curricular activities and work with flexibility and time off. ‘We have people who hold public offices, such as magistrates and school governors, for example,’ says Harris. ‘We also have two senior associates, both in our real estate practice, who are athletes. Holly Grundon works flexibly to balance a triathlon career with her legal one, and George Biggar will take a sabbatical to row the Atlantic for Mind and Spinal research from the 12th December this year. Taylor Wessing is delighted to be able to support these individuals and appreciates the good will and engagement that comes from allowing talented individuals to pursue their outside interests.’

Few law firms would probably claim to have got everything right in their wellbeing programmes. Most are still a work in progress to some degree or another – whether it’s offering real flexibility to all staff, or introducing new programmes in areas like mental health. There are challenges too. Measuring success, beyond anecdotal feedback, can be difficult although all firms seem to be making good use of engagement surveys. ‘Auditing wellbeing so that we understand more where we need to intervene in the future development of our Global health and wellbeing strategy’, says Shields is becoming more commonplace. Across all firms obstacles appear to be involving senior stakeholders consistently – getting them to share their experiences and role model behaviours like agile working – as well as getting people more broadly to take wellbeing seriously, no matter what else is going on in the business.

But the legal profession is taking strides forwards – and not least because business services professionals are pressing the business case for it. They are proving once more the value they can add by helping to make the legal profession a genuinely attractive working environment – and one that can compete on a global stage for the very best talent.

If wellbeing has a place, it surely must be in a high-pressured environment like law – where genuine wholehearted support will not just encourage superior performance but more importantly increased happiness and engagement.

Agile, Flexible working, Wellbeing

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