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Creating a ‘more tailored, contextual’ approach to workplace wellness

With mental health particularly prevalent in lawyers amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, one PwC partner shared her thoughts on what more firms can do to support their employees.

user iconLauren Croft 24 August 2021 Big Law
Dr Sharon Ponniah
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Dr Sharon Ponniah, is a PwC health and wellbeing partner and has a PhD in public health. She spoke to Lawyers Weekly about the mental health risks within the legal profession and why it’s so important for firms to implement initiatives now. 

Dr Ponniah said that due to COVID-19, working conditions have changed and lines have become blurred between home and work.

“There are more meetings, longer hours, and many of us are juggling work with home commitments. This new landscape has created different challenges to managing mental health and wellbeing,” she said.


“Harvard Business Review found that 85 per cent of workers felt their wellbeing had declined, and 55 per cent were not able to balance their work and home lives.”

Dr Ponniah added that 54 per cent of employees feel overworked and that 62 per cent of calls and meetings happen in an unstructured way, causing people to feel overloaded and overwhelmed. She said that understanding these new elements of a post-pandemic working environment was the first step in implementing better mental health initiatives for employees.

“Understanding how new behaviours evolve and impact productivity in the workplace, particularly for workplaces that have adopted hybrid working styles more enthusiastically, will enable organisations to better adapt fit-for-purpose policies, programs and safety nets,” she said.

“Organisations must ensure they have the appropriate policies, programs, and safety nets to manage and mitigate the risks associated with employee wellbeing.

“Organisations need to be investing in hybrid working skills, actively providing education about the importance of sleep, exercise, rest and nutrition. They also need to be developing mature interpersonal skills, both at the formal, executive level and with informal leaders who are more attuned to workplace sentiment and are able to navigate difficult conversations and new scenarios with empathy.”

Dr Ponniah said the key to supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace was to tailor resources and platforms for your firm’s needs, in addition to embedding mental health awareness and first aid into your organisation’s DNA.

“There has been a recent trend toward creating leadership roles focused on health and wellbeing, such as establishing Mental Health and Wellbeing Offices and Public Health Officers, demonstrating organisational commitment to health and safety amid COVID-19,” she said.

“Additionally, organisations can now rely on technology to offer 24/7 support, manage caseloads and enable a more tailored, contextual approach to wellbeing.”

These initiatives are an absolute must, particularly post-pandemic.

“Organisations that don’t implement changes and support their employees run the risk of losing great talent. In a skills shortage environment, it’s vital to look after your people,” Dr Ponniah said.

“In the future, organisations that make wellbeing a core part of their DNA will become the career destinations of choice for in-demand professionals. They will also need to stay ahead of their competitors by enabling greater productivity and creativity through enhanced mental resilience.  

“Evolving needs and expectations are driving change – recognising that your people are core to the success of your business is vital. Workplaces that see this opportunity move beyond compliance to proactively reshape why and how people can do their best work.”

Firms can reduce the risk of employees burning out by improving their mental wellbeing policies, which can be done in a number of ways, according to Dr Ponniah.

“Hybrid work provides an opportunity to improve the way we work and support teams. These small changes include discussing how to collaborate, encouraging employees to block out time, respecting employee break time, communicating with employees about the importance of rest, breaks, hydration and nutrition,” she explained.

“Companies need to evolve their Employee Assistance Programs to be more contemporary, to be more able to support hybrid workplaces, to support clinical challenges, and make coaching available 24/7. They need to support 24/7 access models, drive demand with employees, address broader psychosocial needs, like coaching and integrate digital support to enable scale.”

And having good mental health practices in place can not only improve the wellbeing of staff, but also boost engagement, connection and productivity in addition to making “financial sense” for a firm.

“For every dollar spent by businesses on successful mental health programs, organisations can expect a return on investment of between $1 and $4, for an average return of $2.30. Not only is it the responsible thing to do, but it makes financial sense,” Dr Ponniah said.

“Wellbeing policies also help to prevent burn out and help safeguard employees. Since we are still going through a global pandemic, employees need to take mental health as seriously as they do occupational health and safety.”

She added that these policies can, in turn, help reduce the prevalent mental health risks in the profession. According to Dr Ponniah, “one-third of lawyers and 20 per cent of barristers suffer disability and distress due to depression.”

“There is a high rate of suicide and suicidal ideation among lawyers – with young lawyers and law students considered most at risk. By considering culture and wellbeing in the firm’s DNA, it can help reduce these statistics,” she said.

“The legal profession has an opportunity to improve the wellbeing of lawyers. This can be done by changing the hierarchical systems, removing the power gradients and systemic issues related to bullying and harassment in the workplace.

“By designing the work to accommodate wellbeing needs like work-life balance, it can go hand in hand with the culture change to enable empowerment of lawyers, particularly those who are most vulnerable.”

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