“Once you know that one in four of your staff could be experiencing mental health problems, then you can’t stand by.”
It has been well documented that the legal profession does not lend itself to good mental health. The long hours, stressful decisions and perceived necessity to not show even the slightest sign of weakness all combine to put lawyers under the kind of pressure that can lead to ill mental health. The response from the profession has, generally, not been encouraging: ‘these are personal health issues that should be dealt with in your own time; if you are not up to the job, try something else.’ However, firms are increasingly taking action as the business benefits of a mentally healthy workforce become apparent. Beyond that, though, are the trailblazing firms that take action not because they see their staff as units of profit, but because they see the human side of the problem and can’t imagine doing otherwise. I spoke to Lorna Gavin – Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Corporate Responsibility at Gowling WLG – about her work to eliminate stigma, raise awareness and create a healthy workplace.
“Our starting point was the mid-late 2000’s when we were looking at diversity and focusing on the ‘easy’ stuff – outwardly visible issues like gender and race. We started to realise that we needed to look at disability and mental health because they were big issues that weren’t really being addressed widely in the profession. We wrapped disability and mental health together and started a network called Enable. We put that together in 2012 and had an open discussion about what the issues were and the number one topic that kept coming up was mental health, so we decided to focus on it more.
“Once you see the statistics that ¼ of people, and it’s actually worse for lawyers, will be living with a mental health problem at any time, then you can’t stand by. Some mental health problems are transient, some are long term, some permanent. The ultimate outcome in some cases is death by suicide. As employers and humans, we had to do something.
“The first step was prevention and support. I have to give credit to PWC because they’ve shared what they did and we’ve borrowed bits of it. We’ve tried to boost resilience by doing things in the office to keep well-being up: we have yoga and massage sessions and healthy eating campaigns. We’ve partnered with a social enterprise called Mindapples – they provide workshops and introductions to mindfulness. Their approach is ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, but for the brain. For example, 10 minutes of mindfulness practice per day can help alleviate stress and improve focus. The feedback from the massage and yoga sessions has been universally positive:
‘Just had my massage and just wanted to say what a fantastic idea it is, thank you for arranging. The lady is brilliant and I feel so much better afterwards, physically and mentally.’
‘It helps me feel better mentally as well, more prepared for the day and I get more done because of it.’
“But we needed more than that and we wanted to make sure we were intervening early, before things got too bad, so we worked on raising awareness. In 2016, for Mental Health Week in May, we had an event where people told their stories. We had a client from a big bank who shared his experience of living with depression. One of our directors with a degenerative eye condition talked about the impact it has on her mental health. I introduced the event and was going to talk about my experience of depression in my family, but then I opened up about myself – and living with mild PTSD. I talked about the support I’ve had from my boss, how I was fine at work and, because of that, was able to talk about it.
“There were only about 20 people in the audience but the feedback was incredible, people found it really inspiring and unexpected. It changed the way we talked to each other in the office and made us more open. One of the waiting staff from the catering company who had been serving refreshments in the room approached someone from my team and opened up about being bipolar. He said he felt safer just thanks to listening in on the discussion. That is precisely why it was important to do an event like this. Since that event, a lot more people have started to talk about mental health – it’s starting to become more normal to talk about it.
“Earlier this year, we appointed board sponsors for all our diversity programmes, and one of our practice group leaders stood up to sponsor Enable and our work around physical and mental health. I know he won’t mind me saying this – his outward brand is that he is one tough cookie, so to have an email coming from him for Mental Health Awareness Week was a very powerful thing for other staff. The ripple effect was incredible. He had partners emailing him to say what an impact his words had had on them, and junior lawyers and business services thanking him, saying they felt safe after hearing from him.
“We also bought 500 green ribbons as part of a wider campaign led by the Lord Mayor’s Appeal in London to show that, if you’re wearing one, you’re happy to talk about mental health. We got a picture of the whole board wearing their green ribbons and distributed them to everyone. 70,000 of those ribbons were given out this year. We ordered 500 (for 1200 staff) and they’d all gone in the first hour of the morning. We told people to stick it on their monitors after they’d stopped wearing them so it’s always visible. You still see them around the place.
“Another part of our strategy was training up mental health champions, whose role is simply to listen. I’m one and it always surprises me the effect that just listening has on people. The listening process helps the person get it off their chest – a problem shared is a problem halved – it becomes tangible and manageable. Partners through to PA’s have been trained and most of them have been approached for support. We bring the mental health champions together roughly once a quarter. Confidentiality is maintained but we pick up on themes, look at different techniques and generally see how we can improve. We’ve made people aware of the mental health champions through posters on the back of toilet doors. What we’ve seen is that people feel safer and more secure knowing that there are trained colleagues they can talk to.
“To complement that, we have just begun the roll out of a programme for mental health leadership training. One message I often hear loud and clear from partners and other senior people in the business is: ‘I’m worried about the people in my team but I don’t know how to have that conversation’. It’s that fear of saying the wrong thing that results in leaders putting their heads in the sand. We ran a pilot in the summer with about a dozen partners and some business services staff. Now every practice group and team leader is being lined up to take part. Over the next six months we’re rolling out these courses – they’re about six hours long and demand for spaces has been incredible, despite partners not wanting to be away from their desks!
“If people need external support, we have employee assistance programmes and access to GP’s and video appointments. We’ve also given everyone wallet cards with phone numbers they can use to get help if they’re struggling.
“The final thing at the moment is a ‘This is me’ video that we have launched for World Mental Health Day. We asked for volunteers and that has led to us featuring about seven colleagues from different parts of the business sharing their stories about living with mental health issues. Everyone who has seen the film has been moved by it. It’s been an incredible journey to get to a point where our staff feel supported, but there’s always more progress to be made.
“We want to be able to support our people early, take the stigma away and catch them before they get to crisis point. It makes huge amounts of sense for the individual and, consequently, for the business, not just because it dramatically reduces absenteeism and presenteeism, but because it helps us to recognise when people need a little extra support, and it’s good to be able to give it.”
If you are experiencing mental health problems and need support, you can find advice helplines by clicking here.