Vocational purpose must be the focus of workplace wellness initiatives

By Jerome Doraisamy|08 December 2019

The conversation about mental health issues in law has shifted away from risk management – law firms and legal teams must be proactive, rather than reactive, in fostering a workplace environment that is conducive not only to optimal health but also connection and purpose.

Speaking recently on The Wellness Daily Show (a podcast hosted by Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, Wellness Daily), Herbert Smith Freehills head of diversity and inclusion Danielle Kelly explained that, when the conversation around health and wellbeing started in the legal profession approximately one decade ago, the discussion was centred around a firm’s risk framework.

“In the early days, I think the focus on mental health was much more around mental health first aid,” she recounted.

“It was equipping people with a language around mental health, and it was almost a classic lawyerly response: ‘How do we define the various types of mental illnesses and what might be some of the warning signs?’ So, it was very much an after-the-fact approach.”

In recent years, however, the conversation has “morphed” to focus instead on connecting individuals to the underlying purpose and mission statement of an organisation, Ms Kelly said.

“It’s become much more of about the systemic changes we can make to support people to thrive. So, it's much more a proactive approach around supporting people’s wellbeing.”

This is inextricably linked, she explained, to stringent and meaningful diversity and inclusion measures.

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“The conversation about diversity and inclusion has shifted to be concerned with how we tap into the different perspectives that diversity can bring. In order to do that, the type of culture that [law firms] need to create is a truly inclusive culture, because there’s no point in having a whole lot of diverse people in an organisation if you don’t include them.

“Then the transition to wellness happens when we ask, ‘Well, what are the hallmarks of an inclusive culture?’ An inclusive culture is one where people feel valued, they feel that they belong, they feel respected and they feel that the organisation is supporting them to thrive in roles that are both challenging and fulfilling. So, as soon as you start using language around belonging and respect and thriving, the link with mental wellness becomes obvious.

“The more that we can at a systemic level support people’s wellness, the more inclusive our culture will be and therefore, by definition, the more high-performing, because when were truly inclusive, weve got the psychological safety within the organisation for people to feel safe, to speak up and to air their different perspectives.”

When asked how well professional services entities such as law firms are faring on the shift from risk management to purpose with regard to workplace wellness initiatives, Ms Kelly said progress has been “mixed”.

“A lot of the large law firms have come together for a number of years now in a group called Resilience at Law. Weve also got the Minds Count Foundation, which is focused on mental health in the legal profession. Then there's the City Mental Health Alliance thats soon to launch in Australia and which currently exists in the UK and in Hong Kong,” she explained.

“[But] I think there are some organisations where the focus is still on mental health in the context of risk rather than approaching wellbeing at a systemic level which is very much concerned with your organisational culture. That transition to it being about how do you create a truly inclusive culture is a really important transition to make.”

In ensuring that this shift can continue, law firms and legal teams will need to be continually pushed by workers emerging in the profession so that those employers can keep getting better at connecting individuals with the organisation’s purpose, Ms Kelly said.

“The drive for organisations to be purely focused on value for shareholders or for partners is being replaced by a much broader definition of value. Now, we need to focus on value for the organisation, value for the community that we serve and value for the world in which we operate.

“When we focus on value in a much broader sense, the more the connection with purpose and wellbeing becomes obvious,” she concluded.

To listen to Jerome’s full conversation with Danielle Kelly, click below:

Vocational purpose must be the focus of workplace wellness initiatives
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