Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Mental health in the workplace

The recent High Court decision in the case of the Solicitors Regulation Authority v James & Ors which resulted in 3 Solicitors being immediately struck off (overturning the SDT’s decision to impose a suspended suspension) brought the issue of mental health in the legal profession into the media spotlight.

This is a topic which is becoming more talked about in all areas of life with more and more people realising the benefits of regular meditation, a work-life balance, leading a healthy lifestyle and supporting those around us. Upon visiting a local café recently, it was heartening to come across a leaflet asking if you or anyone you know suffers with a mental health issue and referring to a monthly meeting at a local community centre where people can meet to chat and socialise without judgment. This is an issue which can affect us all at some point in our lives and it can only be a positive that there is growing awareness of it within the public domain.   

From a business perspective, poor mental health costs the UK between £33 billion and £42 billion each year through sickness absence and staff turnover. With this in mind, a specialist employment law firm is campaigning to bring about a change in the law, requiring all businesses to invest in training at least one employee to be a mental health first aider.

Looking specifically at law firms, what it is about the culture and practice of law that can compromise wellbeing and increase the prevalence of mental health issues amongst those working within it? It is not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poorer wellbeing; it is more that there is something about the culture of law, legal education and professional practice that can make lawyers vulnerable. The culture is one known for poor work/life balance, long hours and a competitive environment. The legal profession also tends to attract perfectionist personalities and this combination of factors can take its toll on wellbeing.

In the case of James, the Solicitor’s working conditions were described as ‘frankly abominable’ and included the performance of junior lawyers being compared through league tables and James being told she should work through evenings, weekends and bank holidays to cover any shortfall in her billable hours.

Nevertheless, Lord Justice Flax made what has been viewed by some as a hard-line decision, concluding 'It may be that pressure of work or an aggressive, uncaring workplace could excuse carelessness by a solicitor or a lapse of concentration or making a mistake, but dishonesty of any kind is a completely different and more serious matter.'

Whilst the SRA welcomed the clarity which the judgment brings in that dishonesty should be a ‘red line’ issue which almost inevitably leads to a Solicitor being struck off, others, including those representing the lawyers in question, argued that a more flexible approach to sanctions should be taken which consider factors that pre-date the misconduct and assess the risk, if any, that the offending Solicitor still poses to the public.

The decision may not be without controversy but the underlying message that looking after our mental health and working in a supportive and constructive environment is one that we can all learn from.

Earlier in the year, the Junior Lawyers Division released the results of its Resilience and Wellbeing Survey 2018 which produced some concerning statistics:

  • > 90% of respondents stated that they had experienced stress in their role with 26% of those respondents experiencing severe/extreme levels of stress.
  • > 25% of respondents stated that they had suffered with a mental health problem in the last month (whether formally diagnosed or not). Of those, only 23% had felt comfortable informing their employer. None of the male respondents whom had suffered from a mental health problem told their employer.
  • 73% of respondents stated that they did not know, or thought that their employer did not, provide any help, guidance or support to employees in relation to mental health at work.
  • > 50% of respondents said that their employer could do more in relation to mental health at work

Following on from the survey, the JLD released guidance for best-practice for employers:  http://communities.lawsociety.org.uk/Uploads/d/d/n/Supporting-resilience-and-wellbeing-in-the-workplace.PDF which included recommendations on improving conditions across three key areas of support, office culture and education and training. The guidance is encouraging reading and there is no doubt that making key improvements across these areas over time has the potential to make a huge difference to the mental health of the workforce which in turn is likely to improve profitability and long-term stability in the business as a whole.   

Author: Siân Riley