#auslaw facing its biggest ever threat to workplace wellness

By Jerome Doraisamy|26 March 2020

The coronavirus pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to law firms across Australia, with one senior professional saying there is “no comparison” for threats to lawyers’ health and wellbeing.

“We are in unchartered waters”

According to Clayton Utz national mental health manager Emma Howard, there is “no comparison” between COVID-19 and other threats when it comes to workplace wellness concerns.

“It’s a new challenge that all of corporate Australia is having to tackle together. While many workplaces including ours have for some time had policies and programs in place to support our people’s wellbeing, the scale of today’s situation is unprecedented,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

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DLA Piper global co-chair (IP and tech) Melinda Upton described the crisis as being in “unchartered waters”, particularly with the situation continually unfurling at a rapid pace.

“While the challenge has been – and will continue to be – significant and unprecedented, I think the legal industry has broadly been well placed to manage the transition to remote working, with policies and processes in place that already encouraged and supported people to work flexibly,” she noted.

“Our biggest challenges lay ahead, with the uncertainty of how long we will be working this way. Our focus is on ensuring our people continue to feel connected to their colleagues and their firm and supported to manage their work and personal obligations. Supporting each other, communicating regularly and staying connected [are] more important than ever.”

For Baker McKenzie partner and chair of diversity and inclusion Anne-Marie Allgrove, there is “clearly rising anxiety” surrounding the pandemic which is “unfortunately exacerbated by the necessary isolation measures put in place by the government.

“I am worried about the impact it will have on an already challenging issue, that of wellbeing in the legal profession,” she mused.

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FCW Lawyers managing principal Andrew Douglas called it “an existential threat” for lawyers, professionals who he said specialise in problem-solving.

“Lawyers are emotionally ill-equipped to manage such threats, rely on team-based environments to handle stress and usually have always been leaders. Being alone, no sense of personal value and isolated from resources that create validation, connection and engagement is frightening. The cloud of stand down, retrenchment and loss of social relevance is acute,” he argued.

Is a rethink of workplace wellness in law firms needed?

It is fair to say, Ms Howard outlined, that the legal industry has for some time now understood that workplace wellness has to be a priority.

“The health crisis we’re now facing really brings it into sharper focus,” she surmised. 

What it also highlights, Ms Upton said in support, “is where we can be doing more, in particular supporting our teams to work together differently to manage workloads and connect remotely over a sustained period of time, as well as providing advice and support to maintain physical wellbeing while at home”.

Ms Allgrove said a rethink may indeed be on the cards, as it forces lawyers to be more connected with one another, such as through the utilisation of virtual technologies.

“Finding a reason to connect beyond work is vitally important. Virtual – lunches, coffees, hang outs, are all possible, as we get creative. It is a very human need to be social and is at our core,” she noted.

“Hopefully a positive outcome from all of this will be that no one will question ever again the ability and benefits of flexible working which are key to wellbeing.”

For Mr Douglas, however, a rethink is non-negotiable, saying COVID-19 will “structurally change” how law firms practice.

“Enforced flexibility and technology utilisation [render] obsolete the traditional China cup coffee culture of the large firms. It frees up hours of billable time and creates a less hierarchical, more direct, intimate and accessible practice to clients,” he argued.

“In wellbeing terms, it is a potential wellspring for women in the law and [creates a] more agile, smart and technology-enabled intimacy of connection than we have ever had before. We are now in each other’s lounge rooms. This is the starting blocks of a seismic change in how we do law that is driven by people. Alternatively, firms could try and impose the old structure on remote work which will lead to employee disengagement, health risks, isolation and harm.”

The quantum of responsibility for workplace wellness

Whilst the pandemic may have brought into sharper focus the need to better accommodate for staff needs, the four professionals agreed that their responsibility for those employees remained unchanged.

Ms Howard called it a “moral and ethical” duty, one that is present at all times and not just during health crises.

“We’re keeping people informed as the situation evolves, and reassuring them that as their employer, we’re doing everything we can to support them both at work and in their personal lives. We’re providing access to resources, running sessions on how to cope with the psychological impacts of the pandemic, helping them with advice on how to talk to their children about what’s unfolding, and how to look after their physical health.”

Ms Upton agreed, saying her firm’s “responsibility for the wellbeing of our people while they are working remotely remains the same as if they were working in any of our offices”.

Ms Allgrove said the duty falls under corporate social responsibility.

“We must do what we can for our people’s wellbeing. Not least of which is our employee assistance program, which most firms would have, along with outreach from supervisors and through the many wellbeing initiatives that continue to operate in a webinar format, where our people can connect with one another on work/life issues,” she said.

Firms that ignore this obligation, Mr Douglas hypothesised, “will lose all trust, harm people and damage their reputation”.

“Coming out of this fog it is the best-behaved firms that will attract talent and clients. We have an emergent sense of social responsibility. It was coming slowly with climate change and the younger [25 to] 40-year-old cohort before COVID-19. It is here now and won’t go away,” he said.

What must firms do?

These are “unprecedented times”, Ms Allgrove said.

“This is a new operating environment not seen before. That said, the same rules generally apply in looking after people’s wellbeing. If you start from the position – our people come first, you can then make decisions from there,” she posited.

Many firms are already very proactive in managing their people’s wellbeing, Ms Howard noted, but “having said that, the pace at which the current situation has developed means they’re having to turbocharge their efforts and response and make it even more of a focus”.

“For some time now we’ve had policies in place (such as working from home, flexibility and leave options), as well as a range of mental health and wellbeing resources and expertise, to support people. For us, it’s a matter of making the most of these resources now so everyone can access the support they need, when they need it,” she said.

“Down the track, when people will still need support – possibly even more support than they do now, particularly from a mental health perspective –
we will still have these things in place. An obvious challenge in this environment is helping people to maintain good mental health while working remotely, and to stay connected to friends, family and the community.

“There are many ways to do this including regular check-ins, phone calls and teleconferencing. We already know that many of our employees are connecting regularly through WhatsApp groups, virtual lunches and social gatherings, and telephone calls which is great.”

For now, Ms Upton told Lawyers Weekly, DLA is taking the approach that “we know what works to maintain mental and physical wellbeing, so this is what we are using as the basis to support our people”.

“Encouraging team connectedness and regular contact, transparent communications about business decisions and performance, tips on keeping active and placing healthy boundaries between work and home life have been key messages. The success of this will be dependent on us as a firm being consistent in our communication and support to our people throughout the longevity of what is to come,” she said.

The law says that firms must manage risk daily, Mr Douglas reflected, and “as new risk emerges, we assess and introduce controls to manage that risk”.

“The first risks are all psychological safety risks – feeling heard, relevant and being connected. The higher order risks of family and personal health and financial security require information, support and clarity. The big risk – fear of the unknown – needs leadership on daily ownership of what we can do, celebration, finding fun and happiness (Wednesday night wine night for our teams – a virtual drink add chat) is important. We are all scared. Own it and do something,” he argued.

Looking ahead

The COVID-19 outbreak is significant, Ms Uptson said, and its impacts will be felt for months and even years to come.

“For the legal industry, I believe it will accelerate progress towards a new way of working that in the long term, will have lasting benefits for the wellbeing and work life integration of our people,” she proclaimed.

“In all of this, law firm leaders have the opportunity to really lead from the front, be open to new ways of working, and support their teams navigate this uncharted territory – and that’s exactly what I’ve aimed to do. I start each day (early!) with exercise and settling my two teenagers into virtual school learning.

“I have several team WhatsApp chats for sharing personal photos and some much-needed comic relief where we can, and we’re using videoconferencing more often, as a way to keep visually connected with colleagues right across the globe (I particularly enjoy seeing family members and pets make a cameo on these calls!). We need to listen and learn from our younger generation of lawyers, and their openness to new ways of connecting and engaging. There are many benefits we can and should embrace.” 

One thing the pandemic has demonstrated, Ms Howard mused, is that lawyers and other professional staff have complex needs and must be treated as such.

“We know that the current situation isn’t solely about people moving their work from the office to home. Our people are creating new workspaces and they need to be set up to work in a comfortable and safe environment,” she explained.

“They may also have additional responsibilities which they need to balance including caring for their children or parents, in addition to their work. We also know that spending more time with the people we live with can add to friction or tension in the home and many people may find that confronting. There is a range of challenges that all employers will have to face and respond to as best they can as we navigate this new environment together.”

Mr Douglas supported this, saying a firm’s people are its key asset.

“They are our culture and our commitment to our clients around value. Keep them connected and engaged. Think sideways: how do we use clever technology? Give employees live information about the crisis, what you are doing and how it will impact them,” he suggested.

“Most of all, LISTEN. And start working out how to apply the learning as we emerge to make us more productive, better connected, more flexible and improve value and client intimacy. If we can create employee happiness in this awful time – imagine what it will look like on the other side.”

Ms Allgrove, on the other hand, had a simple message for firms planning for the future: “We will come through this together, both as a firm and a profession, by supporting each other. Let’s not shy away from asking each other the question – ‘Are you okay?’”

#auslaw facing its biggest ever threat to workplace wellness
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