How we build resilience to bounce back from adversity may just depend on our employers. So are law firms living up to their duty of care to their employees to reduce debilitating stress in a difficult economic climate? Angela Priestley reports
The talent war has ended it seems, and talent came out second best. The global financial crisis provided the devastating blow to talent, leaving many employees bewildered by their new office surroundings and the growing levels of pressure they are now forced to endure.
For lawyers in law firms, the defeat came as a particular shock. Lawyers were once revered as being irreplaceable, with a highly sought after skill-set. Lawyers could always expect a high-stress environment, as stress inevitably runs parallel to the pressures surrounding legal work.
In the current market, that high-pressure environment - particularly for younger generations with little experience of a recession - is faring differently to the usual pressures of life in a law firm. Redundancies are numerous, and where cuts have not been made or are already completed, the anxiety of future unknowns can cause vast degrees of stress.
Michele Grow is managing director of Davidson Trahaire Corpsyche, an employee assistance program provider to most large law firms in Australia, offering law firm staff the option to speak confidentially with trained counsellors. She says that data collected over the last few months and compared with earlier periods indicate a significant upturn in the level of service being utilised by employees of law firms.
"The areas we're starting to see escalating, particularly over the last six months, are around two things: workload issues and organisational change," she says. "The other thing increasing at quite a rapid rate is uncertainty and anxiety for people who have not necessarily been made redundant, but are concerned about redundancy, or just don't know."
There is little doubt that the current state of the economy is a significant driver of stress. It's not just redundancies, but understaffing, fear of the unknown, increasing workloads and salary freezes contributing to work-related pressure.
The roads to resilience
Stress in the current economic climate is a problem that Gareth Bennett, director of people and development at Freehills, says is particularly concerning for lawyers already dealing with mental health issues.
Having crossed over to the legal sector from the energy industry 20 months ago, Bennett is adamant the legal sector has some unique attributes that need addressing with regards to conversations about stress. "In law, levels of stress and depression run at the rate of three times the level of the normal business world," he says. "That's pretty scary."
It's a factor Bennett moved to address at Freehills well before heightened pressures of a recessionary market became an issue. "I think the issue of stress within the legal profession has always been there, but it's obviously become more pointed at the present time. Just as the outside world gets tougher, it does become more challenging not only because peoples' jobs are more challenging, but also their personal lives, their financial lives and the lives of their friends and relatives."
Bennett says he approached the issue of stress in the workplace practically. First, he revamped the firm's employee assistance program, and put in place an upper level of the program to specifically cater to partners, to ensure confidential experts were on hand to deal with whatever concerns an employee sought to voice.
From there, he moved to open communication channels, to encourage all levels of employees to talk about, and understand, the necessity for vitality and resilience within their careers and personal lives, and just how it can be achieved. "We tried to get to the fact that it's okay to talk about these kinds of things, and how we can achieve them," Bennett explains.
Next, Bennett introduced annual health checks into the firm, with all partners, senior managers and senior associates eligible for yearly check-ups. With some of the initial health-checks finding some significant health problems for a couple of partners, Bennett says the firm received a necessary wake-up call. "Take-up of this program has gone through the roof," he says.
For a smaller firm like Swaab Attorneys, with 64 employees, managing partner Fred Swaab says transparency is his key to managing stress levels across the organisation. Having won a number of accolades around employee satisfaction and engagement, the firm does not have clear programs for stress management like Freehills, but appears to still be successfully keeping employees' stress levels and anxiety under control.
"One of things we've been working on for quite a long time is transparency," says Swaab. "In a firm of our size, we're still able to communicate messages very quickly and in a way that addresses things almost face-to-face."
Swaab says the firm includes all staff in weekly meetings where issues affecting the firm are discussed in a bid to ensure employees are as informed as possible on how the firm is tracking. From there, the CEO Bronwyn Pott will meet with all fee-earners on a six-weekly rotation to discuss any concerns they might have regarding their team, workloads and progress. People and development manager Gemma Waugh handles similar meetings with the non-fee earners.
"We've made it a cultural mission to trap problems early," says Swaab.
At Corrs Chambers Westgarth, national human resources manager Alexis Navie says that, as well as contributions to an employee assistance program, the firm is also pushing communications as key - particularly having already gone through a difficult period of cutbacks in November 2008.
"Our CEO at the moment has been doing a number of roadshows across the country with the aim of giving people a sense of the issues coming up, what decision-making is occurring and how people are weighting up the pros and cons of the decisions," she says.
Navie adds that the firm also moved to recognise the fact that many lawyers and law firms are predisposed to mental health issues, and in particular, depression. She runs sessions on stress and mental health through organisations like BeyondBlue, and seeks to raise awareness on the dangers across the organsiation, assisting partners in fashioning communications and key messages to their teams.
Against a short-change
Investment in employment assistance programs, alongside communication strategies and awareness-raising programs, appear to be positive steps forward for law firms managing heightened levels of stress across their organsiations. But if funding is already limited, how can the return on investment of these programs be proven?
Navie says that in the current environment, it's difficult to measure the impact on productivity, but levels of absenteeism can provide valuable data, alongside employee engagement programs, surveys and even the levels of OH&S claims for stress-related illnesses.
Bennett agrees, but includes exit interview data and the use of the employee assistance program in his list of measurables. "These are obvious, tangible things, but then you've got even more important things like poor client service, ethical or professional violations, damage to the firm's reputation, poor workplace behaviour, as well as lost opportunities for growth and the loss of growth," he says.
"All those things add up to a significant cost, and can make the difference between success and failure."
The talent war might be lost for the time being, but Bennett reminds us of one important weapon that organisations will always need to keep in mind: "People are our only source of competitive advantage, and we've got to look after them."