Law firms and mental health: will 2019 be the breakthrough year?

Law firms and mental healthLaw firms and mental health is not a phrase you hear too often. It looks like all that is about to change. This particular cause célèbre is one which is very dear to my heart due to the experiences of those close to me. So, let’s take a look at what mental health management means in practical terms for law firms.

What does mentally disabled mean?

You can see a physical disability – that means you can instantly understand it. It also means that you see the merits and benefits of catering for it with sensitivity. You can rarely see mental illness or disability – that does not mean it’s not there. Just as it makes good business sense to employ the talents of the physically disabled, so too for those with this often silent, latent disability.

The term mental disability covers a multitude of conditions. Take a look at the World Health Organisation’s classification document, if you have a couple of hours to spare.

By way of example, let’s take a look at one specific disability – bipolar disorder. Bipolar can be hereditary. It can be brought on by trauma or poor environmental factors. Having a father over the age of 40 when you were conceived is a recognised contributor. It is also widely accepted that an imbalance of the brain chemical serotonin is the major cause. However, many specialists regard this as a symptom rather than a cause. As one psychiatric specialist put it to me: “…we know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about the mechanics of the brain.”

The real point I’m getting at in highlighting bipolar is that you can manage it given the right treatment and a supportive workplace environment. Examples of people who suffered from the condition include Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Van Gogh (see a fuller list here). They all contributed far above the norm in their work. A really sound economic reason for having measures in place in the workplace to assist and encourage.

What measures can you take?

Paying lip service to good mental health practice at work will not suffice. There is a series of steps you will need to take to get it right and make a difference. These are a few pointers, courtesy of Unum.

Make a business case.

Many law firms may be pressured to cut their outgoings and reduce costs. What those in senior positions may not be aware of is the increasing cost that poor mental health is causing to the firm. Generating and analysing stats on sickness absence tracking, turnover rates and morale will help to show the loss in productivity that ignoring this issue may cause.

Set some targets.

Something that key partners at planning meetings will respond to are clear, set goals to work towards. What are the key drivers for mental health and how can you measure what you’re working towards? Think about satisfaction levels and lower turnover rates. Identifying key indicators can help this become rooted in your firm’s performance targets.

Choose the right moment.

It’s not always best to burst into a partnership meeting at any given time armed with a passionate speech. Approach the subject on the back of important dates such as Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day. Keep an eye on the news for topical subjects, use monthly or quarterly staff absence reports. Raise the subject ahead of known pressure points in the year. Arguing that this could boost morale and performance during these times could help your case.

Identify a champion.

Getting someone on side who has influence higher up in the firm is also a great way to get these issues raised. Enlist them as your mental health champion and with a quarter of people experiencing a mental health issue at some point each year, there’s a good chance they themselves would have had a problem or at least are close with someone who has.

Break the taboo.

With 90% of people experiencing some sort of discrimination around a mental health problem, creating an open and honest culture from the top down could help to improve morale within the company. Embracing events like Time to Talk Day can help address the taboo while perhaps showing senior leaders talking about any past issues they may have had can encourage more junior members of staff to think about their own wellbeing.

So, start the conversation and help people to understand, manage and even help to prevent an issue that affects so many in the legal profession.

Find out more.

Check out some of the resources below for further information and insight.

Mike O’Donnell, January 2019.

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