What legal businesses are missing when measuring success

08 June 2022 By Jerome Doraisamy
Desi Vlahos

Business growth that is inclusive, responsible and sustainable demands a metric of business success that goes beyond the mere financial, argues one professional.

In Australia’s legal profession, Leo Cussen Centre for Law mentor and lawyer Desi Vlahos (pictured) said, focusing “purely on outputs rather than outcomes” has resulted in a greater volume of mental health concerns, a lack of work/life balance, toxic cultures and issues with retention.

Ms Vlahos – who last year won the Wellness Advocate of the Year at the Women in Law Awards – told Lawyers Weekly that it is “no secret” that the business models in professional services have been geared toward output relying on GDP and financial ROI as the core metric of growth and success.

“The reality is that GDP is not a comprehensive measure of success as it doesn’t measure important components of wellbeing including what matters most – our health, equality of opportunity and social relationships,” she proclaimed.

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Wellbeing is a “critical determinant of talent attraction and retention”, she argued, as well as being an important and material pillar of ESG analysis and performance assessment.

“Therefore, safe workplaces and cultures that protect and nurture the wellbeing of employees, have the potential to make a significant contribution to promoting the highest possible standards of health,” she submitted.

“This, in turn, acts in support of the long-term success of each business. Ultimately the end goal for organisations should be to put their people in the best position to fulfil their potential and achieve wellbeing.”

“This is the impetus behind true social impact.”

ESG exists, Ms Vlahos noted, because investors, citizens, customers, suppliers and employees want businesses to be more responsible about their impacts.

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“We know that care is the life-giving force that sustains health and wellbeing, binding together societies and ecologies. But everyday forms of care, though essential are systematically undervalued,” she said.

“Impact measurement provides access to the kind of data about interventions, helping make informed decisions and adopting critical thinking strategies. It helps to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and strategy to determine if it’s actually working or if changes are needed based on specific identifiable needs. This shifts the narrative from box-ticking to deriving real data on the efficacy of interventions.”

Ensuring the right focus on wellness

The problem, Ms Vlahos advised, with implementing wellbeing initiatives without strategy or measurement of impact, or needs, puts organisations “at risk of a one-dimensional approach” when it comes to caring for its people.

“And, traditionally, this is what we’ve tended to see in the legal sector. In fact, 82 per cent of legal organisations say mental health is a priority; 73 per cent have wellbeing initiatives in place but only 29 per cent measure the impact according to the IBA Mental Wellbeing Report,” she detailed.

Almost all legal business leaders are aware, Ms Vlahos noted, that wellness is a foremost consideration.

“Working in hybrid settings presents its own challenges and potential psychosocial risks. Identifying these risks also pose more difficult in scattered/remote work environments given the lack of face to face interaction,” she said.

“This is why understanding the new context of hybrid work is imperative and the priority needs that are specifically driving wellbeing for that particular context. In addition, as controls must go beyond the level of policies and training to include more structural change to address how work is designed where psychosocial hazards exist, integrating an assessment system to assist in managing risk and promoting flourishing will assist in building a workforce that feels secure, productive and motivated through promotion of good mental health – even when working in more isolated settings.

“Maximising workforce agility and resilience, in a rapidly changing environment, will help organisations address both the current disruption and future risk.”

Wellceum

In the face of such business and leadership challenges and responsibilities, Ms Vlahos has founded (and is the chief executive of) Wellceum, a new workplace consultancy platform that assists businesses in integrating a longitudinal measurement and assessment system to foster higher standards of wellness, by using “real people data”.

Doing so, she outlined, assists organisations to identify priority needs, measure impact of initiatives, manage psychosocial risk, comply with legislative duties as well as unlock opportunities for improved employee resilience and increased productivity.

“Through measurement, we can prove a service or initiative is effective at meeting the needs of the people they seek to help and therefore measuring wellbeing can help to maximise social impact,” she said.

“Taking a multi-disciplinary approach, Wellceum has partnered with industry experts Flourish Dx and Huber Social in providing organisations with a measurable data system to inform decision making and strategy.”

Such a consultancy platform is imperative in the legal profession, Ms Vlahos argued, given how wellbeing issues have traditionally been viewed as the individual’s responsibility.

“This Darwinian approach has necessitated lawyers being required to build superhuman grit and resilience to parry the demands of practice,” she said.

“How that plays out from a workplace health and safety context is quite profound when the research suggests that commonly reported psychosocial stressors in the legal workplace such as high job demands, low job control and poor workplace relationships have the capacity to contribute to a large proportion of wellbeing related issues.”

As a practical legal training mentor, she reflected, looking after a graduate cohort during the 2018 Hayne royal commission was the catalyst for her inquiry into how job design and stressors in the workplace impact wellbeing, particularly for young lawyers.

“I realised very soon that general approach taken by the profession has been relatively reactive rather than preventative in its endeavours. Many firms have onboarded EAP services, resilience training and even mental health first aid,” she said.

“These are all effective interventions as ‘icing on the cake’, but they are not prevention based to mental health.”

In the face of this, and through implementing an assessment and measurement system, Wellceum can support organisations identify and proactively manage the psychosocial risk in their workplaces, Ms Vlahos proclaimed.

“At the same time, it can help promote positive mental health and provide managers and employees the opportunity to flourish in their workplaces.

“Wellceum can also provide clients with insights to prove a service or initiative is effective at meeting the needs of the people they seek to help. Measuring wellbeing can help to maximise social impact by directing resources to the most effective use,” she added.

“We are then able to work together to improve impact by identifying where to best focus delivery, resources, innovation and collaboration.”

What comes next

Looking ahead to the future, Ms Vlahos said that the next frontier is about optimising a system based on “practice”, through which measurement is embedded into the impact management process and decisions are based on the data.

“This is why viewing ESG as a longitudinal process is critical for leadership and the emphasis of governance should be on stewarding the process. Seeing management of wellbeing as a longitudinal integrative system where risk management and impact come together will put organisations on the best trajectory to help optimise the highest standards of health and wellbeing,” she explained.

“The pandemic has reoriented traditional economic and business practices where performance and reward systems were geared toward outputs. We are now at the point where we are prepared to move beyond GDP as a sole measure of progress to account for things that really matter: our physical and mental health, the environment, the unity of our communities, and the fair distribution of economic wealth in our society.

“This means putting our economy in service of what people and planet actually need.”

What legal businesses are missing when measuring success
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