Workplace wellness must extend ‘well beyond obligations regarding duty of care’

26 May 2022 By Jerome Doraisamy
Genevieve Collin

True commitment to wellness in legal workplaces, one BigLaw chief executive partner says, means doing much more than hosting a series of in-house initiatives.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Lander & Rogers chief executive partner Genevieve Collins (pictured) said that, now more than ever before, leaders in law firms must be focused on helping employees to thrive.

“Law firms are people businesses, and our leaders can play an important role in building connections, aligning business activities with purpose, and developing career pathways that leverage people’s strengths and passions, particularly in a hybrid-working world,” she said.

Ms Collins – who has previously spoken with Lawyers Weekly about how Lander is adapting to new ways of working, the need for meaningful change to come from those at the board level, and what has made the firm an employer of choice in Victoria – said that as community rates of mental health increase, leaders are more likely than ever before to be exposed to mental health issues, both personally and from others.

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“It’s important to equip leaders with the skills to respond to signs and situations involving mental health. Mental health first-aid training is becoming increasingly common to assist lawyer leaders in their roles,” she advised.

A focus on wellbeing also extends, Ms Collins added, “well beyond obligations regarding duty of care”.

It is becoming, she said, increasingly important in fostering trust, performance and culture.

“Leadership can be seen in many forms in firms. For example, Lander & Rogers made a simple but powerful change to our sexual harassment policy, introducing mandatory reporting for anyone who experiences, witnesses or becomes aware of sexual harassment within our firm,” she offered.

“We shifted the language in our policy from ‘should’ report to ‘must’ report incidents. This change is designed to empower not only the impacted person, but also bystanders and witnesses of inappropriate and/or illegal conduct.

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“We have a duty as a profession and community to continue to take action together against some of the most harmful behaviours that can occur in a workplace, with implications for wellness and mental health.”

It is, in fairness, a challenge for legal employers to grapple with at present, given the advent of scattered workforces.

Moreover, Ms Collins pointed out, it is estimated that fewer than half of organisations’ employees participate in wellbeing programs, typically due to misalignment between activities and needs.

“A well-designed employee listening approach provides important and timely information on the wellbeing of people, teams and practice areas, and assists in informing program initiatives and changes,” she said.

“As a firm, we take time to understand and acknowledge the stressors on our people such as caregiving responsibilities, societal pressures and more, and design resources, programs and initiatives that remove inhibitors to wellbeing and performance.”

This became increasingly important during the height of the pandemic, she said, “during which many of our people experienced the added pressure of caring responsibilities for children and homeschooling”.

Separately, a big barrier to addressing such health concerns – during a pandemic or not – is the longstanding social stigma surrounding these conversations.

“A commitment to wellness must be authentic and nurture psychological safety so people feel comfortable accessing support,” she said.

“Wellness programs aligned to firms’ purpose and values, social and community initiatives, and training and development programs help create visibility, drive engagement and normalise discussions regarding mental health and wellbeing.

“Applying this approach, Lander & Rogers’ wellbeing surveys show 92 per cent of our people feel supported in their roles and 85 per cent feel connected to their teams. This is no accident and is the result of effective monitoring, open channels of communication and adaptive programs to tackle areas in which people are experiencing challenges,” she outlined.

Law firms have an obligation, Ms Collins posited, to support their people, and while there are positive signs of change within the industry, she said, there’s still much work to be done.

“I encourage lawyers to become active in addressing the systemic barriers to wellness within firms by talking with firm leaders about their individual experience, by joining or establishing in-house or external committees to create awareness and champion new initiatives, and, importantly, working alongside HR teams to design holistic programs,” she said.

Ultimately, however, a “true commitment” to people’s wellness, Ms Collins surmised, is much more than a series of wellness initiatives.

“It should be systemic and designed to meet their day-to-day needs, when and wherever they’re working,” she said.

“We know that to embed and promote wellness effectively in the workplace, we must have a sustained focus on all aspects of our culture – our norms, values and shared sense of purpose and belonging.”

Workplace wellness must extend ‘well beyond obligations regarding duty of care’
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