Lawrence Stephens

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Achieving a work-life balance as a junior solicitor

October 2019

Today is World Mental Health Day and individuals across the world are doing their bit to raise awareness of mental health issues. The day also offers the opportunity for industries to reflect on their efforts to be more mindful of mental health in the workplace, a cause we care strongly about. To seek a specialist perspective, our Partner Steven Bernstein spoke with top London psychiatrist and author Dr Paul Keedwell to gather his thoughts on the ways the legal sector can support its junior employees. 

Many keen and energetic young lawyers enter the legal profession hoping for a good work-life balance in addition to esteem and remuneration. Unfortunately, for many, the reality is far more challenging. In a highly competitive environment some firms lose sight of the need to support their busy junior staff and many of their employees pay a high price in terms of stress and stress-related illnesses.

Early last year, The Law Society’s Junior Law Division undertook a survey of its members to assess their levels of wellbeing, resilience and mental health. The results were alarming: Over 80 per cent of respondents had felt stressed in the previous month and 26 per cent had felt severely/extremely stressed. The key stress factors were high workload, client demands/expectations, lack of support and ineffective management. 

Even more worryingly, over 38 per cent had suffered with a mental health problem in the previous month. Of these individuals, 55 per cent had considered taking time off (but hadn’t), and only 18 per cent had told their employer. Over half had experienced problems in their family life and relationships as a result of their work. Needless to say, most felt that their organisation could do more to provide help, guidance and support in relation to mental health in the workplace.

Anxiety disorders, depression and burnout are not only undesirable at an individual level, but they are clearly bad for productivity. If firms fail to offer staff better support they run the risk of burnt out employees turning in lacklustre work, or they will fail to retain the talent that they need. Furthermore, if burn out leads to mental disorder this can be costly. Mental illness is one of the leading causes of employee absenteeism, and costs the UK economy £94bn a year, according to recent OECD figures. Employers have a duty of care to help people suffering from depression, for example, and have a moral and legal duty to assist in their rehabilitation within the workplace. Better to address any problems early on. In failing to prevent mental health problems in the workplace, companies are only hurting themselves. 

Psychiatrist and author Dr Paul Keedwell, co-founder of Why the Long Face? podcast comments:

“It is no longer acceptable – or defensible – to assume that chronic stress and burnout are natural consequences of working in a busy and competitive environment. We all have a responsibility to look after the mental health of our colleagues in the workplace by offering help in a timely manner. We also need to pay attention to our own work-life balance and learn to seek help or advice before mental illness takes hold” 

In addition, firms who do not take mental health seriously may find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit. There are a growing number of cases where medical conditions have led to claims of negligence against employers. One particular case saw a worker’s initial €150 in compensation from the Workplace Relations Commission increased to €15,000 by the Labour Court due to the worker not receiving an adequate rest period by their employer.  

Conversely, research by the Mental Health Foundation charity found that policies addressing wellbeing at work increased productivity by up to 12%. Clear guidance is available on how to do this. The Junior Law Division has now launched a guide on supporting resilience and wellbeing in the workplace. There are four general themes that emerge.

Firstly, whilst people across all sectors are likely to be required to work overtime on occasion, limiting your own or your employees’ working time to manageable and sociable working hours could result in various health improvements and increased productivity. 

Secondly, do not expect employees to respond to texts and emails when they are not at work. This might soon become legally enforced: the Irish Government is considering a law to ensure workers have the right to log off from work emails. 

Thirdly, have an open-door policy that encourages employees to come forward for 1 to 1 mentoring and support at all levels of the organisation on a regular basis. It should not be considered weak or shameful to seek help and advice in an attempt to prevent or alleviate mental health problems before they develop into something more serious. 

Finally, create a working culture based on trust and wellbeing that does not allow an unrealistic workload to fall on any one individual (frequently a junior solicitor’s shoulders). Extreme levels of work-related stress should not be regarded as a necessary for career progression. Though legal offices are required to adapt to changing workflows, this can be managed in a collegiate way. The best firms, doing the best work, are ones which truly collaborate as a team to ensure that no one individual crumbles under the pressure.

Steven Bernstein, Partner of Lawrence Stephens Solicitors comments:

“Work-life balance is an important facet of the working culture at Lawrence Stephens and we work hard to quash misconceptions about legal careers. Whilst there is a need for more understanding and dynamism across the legal sector, efforts can be made within firms of all sizes to ensure employees are able to achieve a more positive work-life balance. We know that, in the long-run, this will benefit our clients aswell as our employees”   

To sum up, more attention must be placed on mental health and wellbeing in relation to the workplace than ever before. Legal firms must consider the mental wellbeing of graduates who they employ, with particular reference to the work-life balance, and they must build in a supportive network. It is instructive to examine best practice in other industries, including the use of designated mental health guardians. Everyone in an organisation should be aware of who to turn to when the workload gets too much. More often than not, when senior partners act down to provide extra support this can be a great learning experience for all, boost morale, and foster the firm’s long-term success.