New Zealand Law Society - Workplace wellness — we can do better

Workplace wellness — we can do better

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Over the past 20 years, there has been a gradual rise in the awareness of the need for wellness in the workplace. However, there is still some way to go before we can say that the legal profession has a culture of wellness.

I would like to explore what the current trends are, the importance of including a focus on the emotional and mental wellness of employees and what can be done to implement a wellness culture. And like every new business initiative, we also want to know what the benefits and return on investment are. So, let’s start with where the profession is currently.

Current trends and perceptions

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that most, if not all, law firms have some kind of wellness benefits for staff. The most common are sponsorship of indoor sports teams, discounted medical insurance, discounted gym memberships and free flu jabs. Some may also provide lunchtime seminars on topics such as stress management, nutrition and appropriate exercise.

These in themselves are great initiatives to promote the health of staff and should continue to be encouraged.

However, we still have a lot of work to do in supporting staff who are having emotional or mental health issues. As psychologist, Gaynor Parkin stated in 2014 “It’s a stressful profession” (LawTalk 855, 21 November 2014, p 8):

“Certainly with some of the groups I’ve worked with – and it’s not unique to lawyers – but I think there’s still a stigma in that it’s not okay to say that you’re feeling stressed or anxious or overwhelmed by things. There’s still that idea that if you’re a competent person you will just suck it up and keep on going …”

Unfortunately, it seems that this is still largely applicable now. There is a general lack of proactive initiatives around the emotional and mental wellness of employees.

Importance of focus on emotional/mental wellness

It is now common knowledge, thanks to publicity around the rates of depression among lawyers and law students in the United States, that the legal profession is over represented on the depression scale. In the LawTalk article mentioned, it was quoted that US lawyers suffered depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than occupations generally and in 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest suicide rate in the US.

It has been suggested that New Zealand lawyers are likely to have similar statistics.

The Mental Health Foundation put out a paper in 2014 stating that in the 2012/2013 New Zealand Health Survey, one in six New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with a common mental disorder (including depression and anxiety). Anxiety is an increasing issue among all age groups and can often lead to depression if it is not adequately addressed.

Given the high propensity of mental health issues among lawyers, it would be preferable to see wellness programmes incorporating an element of wellbeing that extends beyond the physical.

Clearly, being physically healthy has a big impact on our mental health but when stress, whether it is work related or not, starts to overwhelm us, our emotional health will suffer despite our physical health. And it is often those who do not take advantage of the discounted gym memberships or other physical offerings in the wellness programme that are more susceptible to anxiety or depression issues and these issues are rarely addressed in the current wellness offerings.

What can we do?

A good, comprehensive and balanced wellness programme will look to engage staff on a personal and individual level. A summary of the options include:

  1. Incorporating wellness sessions in your existing programme on practical ways to achieve work/life balance, anxiety awareness and strategies to manage or prevent it, communication and relationship tools.
  2. If you don’t already have a structured wellness programme, consider implementing one. It doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective.
  3. Consider providing individual or team coaching to deal with any specific issues.
  4. More proactive promotion of any Employee Assistance Programme you subscribe to.
  5. Training and/or coaching of partners and management in effective and healthy leadership habits.

To look at these options in more detail:

Work/life balance

There is more to this than working fewer hours and exercising or socialising more. It can often be about how effective and present you are during the time you spend in each activity.

If you spend your non-work time worrying or thinking about work and your work time feeling guilty about the lack of time you have spent with your partner and/or kids that week or how little exercise you have done, that is not work/life balance. It is likely to overwhelm and lead to stress and a general lack of happiness.

There are good strategies you can implement to make sure that you are mentally, as well as physically, present in each area of your life. This will increase your productivity at work and your enjoyment of your non-work time.

Communication and relationship tools

These can be as effective in the workplace as they are outside with our family and friends. It is not unusual for there to be personality clashes, inappropriate or ineffective communication skills and lack of cohesiveness within teams.

An understanding of different personality types and the best way to communicate with each type can be invaluable for assisting teams and offices to work effectively together.

Individual coaching

There will generally be clear signs that an employee is struggling and these are likely to include a change in behaviour or moods, increased absence and/or a drop in productivity (billable hours).

The earlier these issues are addressed, the easier they will be to correct. A few sessions of individual coaching will have a huge impact.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP)

These are very common and widely used by law firms. However, they are not often well promoted within the firm.

I would suggest that a lot of employees would either not know they exist, or if they do, they don’t have an understanding of what the programme is about. For an employee who is struggling with anxiety, depression or some other issue, a reminder from their supervising partner, colleague or HR that the programme is available could make a real difference.

Partner/management training

Just because a partner has developed the technical skills and marketing skills to progress to a partnership position, does not automatically mean they have the leadership and relationship skills to nurture an effective, positive, cohesive and healthy team.

A partner who does not provide the appropriate feedback, challenge and an element of fun to the employees and team can find they have unhappy and sometimes unhealthy team members. This may present as boredom, lack of interest and productivity, stress, anxiety and a higher staff turnover rate. With some coaching or training in leadership, communication and relationship skills, these issues can be avoided or overcome.

What are the benefits or Return on Investment?

Although we would like to think that promoting a wellness culture would be a priority for its own sake, it would be naïve to believe that a business does not want to know what the return on their investment is in applying resources to a programme that may not necessarily show immediate or tangible results. However, the benefits of having a culture of wellness and therefore a happy environment and staff include:

  1. Less absenteeism. Healthy and engaged employees will take less sick leave. Stress, anxiety and depression can have serious negative effects on physical health, as well as mental health.
  2. Less staff turnover. A workplace that nurtures its employees and promotes high morale where employees feel appreciated, valued and looked after will have less turnover of staff. The cost of having to replace and train staff can be high.
  3. Higher productivity. Challenged, engaged and valued staff will naturally be highly productive. It is also true that happy lawyers will lead to happy clients. Higher productivity not only leads to a direct increase in fees billed, but happy clients lead to more instructions and new clients by way of referrals.
  4. Less time off, less staff turnover and higher productivity therefore have a direct effect on the business’ bottom line.

So, in conclusion, we can deduce that given the propensity to mental illness in the legal profession, it makes sense to have a balanced wellness programme that includes an element of emotional and mental wellness initiatives.

Although these may require a financial investment, the value to be gained by the business are clear. A positive wellness culture will result in happier and healthier lawyers, leading to a happier and healthier business. It is a win-win for all involved.

Kathleen (Kat) McKay is a certified Corporate Wellness Coach with Focus Coaching Hub and is passionate about workplace wellness. She provides wellness sessions and coaching for businesses and also has a particular interest in coaching through anxiety. Before starting in business, Kat spent 18 years in law firms in Christchurch and Auckland and is a proud mother of two young boys. For more information or to contact Kat, see

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