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‘Mental health is a 365-day issue’

Following R U OK? Day, Lawyers Weekly spoke to four law firms on the state of mental health in the profession following COVID-19 — and what more firms can be doing to improve it.

user iconLauren Croft 14 September 2022 Big Law
‘Mental health is a 365-day issue’
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According to research from the World Health Organisation, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 27.6 and 25.6 per cent in depression and anxiety, respectively, across the world.

The scientific brief: Mental Health and COVID-19: Early evidence of the pandemic’s impact, states that “evidence suggests the pandemic and associated PHSMs have led to a worldwide increase in mental health problems, including widespread depression and anxiety”.

In addition, the Productivity Commission calculated that the direct costs of poor mental health to the Australian economy ranged from $40 to $70 billion annually. By 2025, it was estimated that the pandemic would cost the NSW economy alone up to $7.4 billion in mental health and depression disorders among workers.


The decline in mental health across the globe, as well as within the profession, said Kozarov Lawyers principal director Zagi Kozarov, has been due to the uncertainties and fears associated with the pandemic, as well as the mass lockdowns and negative economic effects of COVID-19.

“For many, the psychological impacts of the virus were generally associated with poor mental health, financial insecurities and the fear associated with losing our daily routine and social connections at that time. The legal profession has adapted amazingly to accommodate a digital environment during the pandemic. We have had to facilitate employees working from home and as a result, COVID has had a serious impact on the morale and wellbeing of some lawyers which I believe got worse to some extent as the pandemic dragged on. Having to switch to working from home had many lawyers feeling isolated, lack of motivation and having issues surrounding communication,” she said.

“On a more positive note, COVID has enabled us to see that we can adapt to change quickly and has proven that a flexible work/home office can work. Although the legal profession has transitioned to a safe and gradual return to work, many are still working from home a few days a week. I have noticed that there is still that uncertainty about the ongoing impact of the pandemic. As a result, this has motivated the legal profession to make health and wellness a greater priority than in the past.”

This increased priority is, in part, due to lawyers reporting an increased sense of withdrawal and social isolation, mental fatigue and an absence of work/life balance, according to Hamilton Locke managing partner Nick Humphrey, who said this has led to “lack of motivation, increased frustration and a sense of helplessness” in the profession.

“Firms have combated this by actively promoting flexible work options and supporting remote working, as well as training people to provide peer support as mental health champions and providing access to resources and tools to promote positive mental health and general well-being. I think it’s fair to say that the pandemic and its impacts saw firms exploring and embracing new possibilities in how their people work, connect virtually, and take care of themselves, family members, friends, colleagues and clients during uncertain times,” he said.

“A big thing that we have witnessed in the profession is the increasing need for connectivity, whether that be in person or virtually. A lot more people are realising the struggles and the importance of mental health experiences by their colleagues and so in a time where they are no able to support in person ensuring teams and colleagues remain connected has been a big priority shift that has become evident in the profession and Hamilton Locke specifically.”

This connectivity was particularly hard amid COVID outbreaks and close contact rules. Cornwalls partner Paul McCann said that there is still some reluctance to come into the office on public transport — but that coming together is increasingly important post-pandemic.

“I think it is highly desirable that our office staff come together as frequently as they can because of the social interchange. It has always been highly important to us that we do all we can to help our people manage any mental health issues they may have, and we encourage our staff to be open with the issues they are facing, and to discuss their real-life problems with others in the office. This has become especially important post-pandemic,” he said.  

“Unfortunately, in the past, few law firms were not willing to recognise mental health issues, or otherwise saw it as a weakness. Now, and especially post-pandemic, I believe that there is much more awareness of mental health issues among lawyers.”

Whilst the mental wellbeing of staff at K&L gates was “front and centre” of every conversation, director of human resources Nick Grant said he’s unsure the true psychological impacts of the global pandemic will be known “for some time yet”.

“What we did see was that each person was affected by it differently, depending on a range of factors, including what support network they could rely on, the amount of time they were spending in lockdown and the skills they already had to deal with traumatic events. Out of this comes an acknowledgement that each person’s mental health is personal to them and any assistance that a law firm offers its people needs to be able to be tailored to that person’s needs,” he said.

“The mental wellbeing of our people was front and centre of every conversation our leadership had when discussing our response to the pandemic. What emerged from these discussions was the importance of checking in with people to see how they are, to understand their unique situation and then have the resources at hand to provide assistance when needed.

“The other positive development is that the constant dialogue within our firm, and many other law firms, will help to destigmatise mental health and encourage more meaningful conversations between colleagues. More open conversations like this will inspire those who need help to receive it and build greater empathy within organisations.”

Whilst Mr Grant emphasised that “mental health is a 365-day issue”, K&L Gates provided staff with a tip sheet for having meaningful conversations on mental health for R U OK? Day this year — and also has a health and wellbeing program that runs year-round, consisting of a range of mental health initiatives, including 24-hour professional counselling support and training for leaders to manage employees with mental health issues.

Similarly, Cornwalls staff gathered on R U OK? Day with food provided in office; but Mr McCann said that most importantly, each principal greets staff to ask how they’re going “every day, without fail”.

“Leaving at night we all say goodbye to everyone, and every Friday afternoon we put the tools down for drinks and a bit of social humour about what everyone is doing on the weekend. We simply try to make it the happiest workplace we can,” he said.

“We were also the first law firm to sign onto Sonder, an app which gives our employees 24-hour free access to mental health services, whenever they need it. Through Sonder, our employees can also have someone track their trips home whenever they are out in the community or working late, and may be feeling as though they are at risk.”

Hamilton Locke also hosted an R U OK? Day information session for staff hosted by their EAP provider, Assure — and have a health and wellness program as well as mental health “champions” within the firm who are put through mental health first aid training.

“Our people are encouraged to use our EAP service offering coaching and support to our staff and their immediate family members. Through the program, employees (and their immediate family members) have access to confidential counselling via phone and video including wellbeing coaching, legal advice, financial coaching and dietician support, 24/7 crisis support for emergencies and support for Managers who are supporting team members during a crisis,” Mr Humphrey explained.

“Furthermore, we have our weekly 15Five check-ins. This allows team members to let their managers know how they are feeling via a pulse check. If an employee registers a lower-than-normal pulse score, their manager can reach out to check in and determine what support they need. In our anonymous engagement check-in survey, 70 per cent of lawyers said they are able to speak to someone at work about their mental health and wellbeing.

“We are seeing a lot of people at Hamilton Locke eager to return to the office and reconnect with their colleagues. In February this year, we held our Adventure Club, in which we took 80 of our employees to Tasmania for a weekend of food, laughs and reconnection. For many of our employees, it was the first flight they had been on in over two years. The Adventure Club was such a huge success that we are going again in October so that our new employees also have the opportunity to attend and will have attendees across each of our four offices.”

Kozarov Lawyers hosted an R U OK? Day morning tea for staff — but Ms Kozarov said that coming out of on and off lockdowns, many people are “still not quite feeling themselves”.

“I think that some of us are struggling to move forward post pandemic as I guess in some ways, we are not able to regulate our emotions as well as we could before. That kind of emotional tension would be relevant to people who continue to take precautions and factor the virus into their decision making in their day-to-day life whilst much of our society has moved on from tracking the pandemic at every turn, with people living a lot like they were in 2019,” she said.

“I see that barriers have been lowered and even removed regarding traditional office structure. Ultimately the most important thing is to re-establish relationships with others. I believe that human connection is associated with mental and physical wellbeing.”

Moving forward, firms need to facilitate open conversations around mental health, build better working cultures and encourage better work/life balance in order for mental health within the profession to improve.

“There are two things the legal profession can do. The first is to keep talking about mental health so that we can completely destigmatise it. We have seen other areas of life, such as professional sport, where discussions about mental health have evolved positively in a matter of a few years. The legal profession has started that journey but we need to keep talking to our people about it,” Mr Grant said.

“The second is that we need to continue to find ways to provide true balance within the roles of all of our people. The pandemic has provided some of that balance, with the ability to work more away from the office. But there are other ways we can provide this balance and those need to be properly assessed.”

Whilst the profession has come a long way in recognising the warning signs of poor mental health, Ms Kozarov said there is still more work to be done.

“Whilst there are many resources available in our community, what I have noticed is that there are very few that focus on the legal industry’s unique challenges. For example, the demanding hours of work, stressful work environments, dealing with difficult and demanding clients, exposure to vicarious trauma,” she said,

“Lawyers need an improved work/life balance, a way to manage stress better, promoting consistent habits of self-care and ultimately a way to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues and prevent burnout. We need to be mindful to step back when we become caught up in negative thoughts. I believe we as a profession have come a long way, but we still have such a long way to go to make a difference by encouraging discussions that are open on the issues of mental health and the legal profession.”

In addition, a “cultural shift” is needed in order to move forward, added Mr Humphrey.

“The foundations underpinning culture in traditional law firms are flawed — overloaded teams, unreasonable expectations, long hours, dissipating lines between personal and work life and the need to constantly be available are common practices in the legal industry. There is a clear lack of purpose in the field with professionals, frustrated with bureaucratic management structures that fail to drive positive and constructive change, and in turn, heightens the misalignment between the interests of people and culture,” he said.

“We’ve fostered a unique strategy and vibrant culture, putting our people at the forefront of everything we do. There is a great need to scale a culture that maximises people’s experience and focuses on personal and professional development. Post-pandemic, I think everyone in the legal profession needs to work together to ensure the conversion around mental health is ongoing, open and flexible. It’s important that we ensure the conversation about mental health is constant and not only something that is discussed one day of the year.”

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