Meaningful social contact critical for wellness post-pandemic
Ensuring substantive connection among legal teams, together with transparency about one’s work, is a responsibility that leaders and individuals have in ensuring optimal wellbeing among lawyers.
Legal employers will have to prioritise effective engagement, honest dialogue and uptake of technological platforms if they are to better accommodate for the health and wellbeing needs of their employees once COVID-19 is over.
That is the view of Hamilton Locke lawyer Amelia Schubach (pictured), who conducted a survey of legal practitioners in the first two weeks of May for the NSW Young Lawyers human rights committee and subsequently published her findings for the committee’s Human Rights Bulletin.
In the course of her research, Ms Schubach found that vocational uncertainty, increasingly blurred personal and professional boundaries and social disconnection and isolation are among the most challenging aspects of the pandemic being experienced by lawyers right now.
Moreover, more than half (55 per cent) are experiencing trouble sleeping and almost three-quarters (74 per cent) find it more difficult to focus as a result of up-ending one’s normal working arrangements.
“Both, in turn, have consequences for productivity, stress management, attention to detail and generally maintaining positivity in a challenging time. However, some anecdotal experience confirms that a number of benefits to working from home were important, including limited commute time and flexibility,” she said.
In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Ms Schubach said it will be critical for employers to ensure opportunities for meaningful social contact among staff members, “particularly by leveraging the existing technology that supports this”.
“However, firms and leaders must avoid the pitfalls of going overboard and scheduling regular phone or VC calls for the sake of it, which can become cumbersome. To this end, it is important to understand the experiences of individuals and teams and the support required. In order to do so, workplace culture should foster open communication and reduce the stigma of seeking help,” she said.
This is particularly important, Ms Schubach added, given how many lawyers are reluctant to speak to someone at work about their mental health struggles: “there is clearly work to be done here”, she submitted.
Elsewhere, Ms Schubach’s research found that half of respondents (50 per cent) of legal practitioners have increased anxiety and poor health as a result of perceived or actual job insecurity.
“To manage this, workplaces should maintain transparency around restructuring to ensure information circulated around job losses or reduced hours [is] accurate and not inflated,” she suggested.
“Generally speaking, with a more resilient workforce, restructuring and job insecurity can be less anxiety-inducing. To this end, it is important for workplaces to provide ongoing in-house mental health support and to reduce the stigma around requiring mental health support.”
To address these issues, wellness practices should evolve so that “there is a broad offering that can be accessed by practitioners of all seniorities [sic]”, Ms Schubach suggested, including junior lawyers but also senior personnel such as partners.
“With a broad cross-section of the profession participating in wellness practices, they become normalised and can encourage others to be involved where they might previously have been ashamed or embarrassed,” she advised.
“Technology should be leveraged so that people who may be working from home or in non-central locations are able to access the resources available, such as through databases with reading material or VC counselling sessions.”
When asked to whom the burden falls for enacting such frameworks, she said that senior lawyers – particularly managing partners and team leaders – must bear the responsibility of ensuring these structures are in place through mental health programs and resources.
“It may not necessarily be that the senior personnel are running these programs. For example, I am spearheading my firm’s mental health and wellness program as a junior lawyer, but have had the approval and sign off from management. Support needs to come from the top to validate the program and ensure its longevity,” Ms Schubach posited.
“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every lawyer to contribute [to] fostering a culture of openness about mental health and wellness so that we may become a more resilient and supportive profession.”
In addition, technology will serve as a “key driver” for law firms in boosting individual and team wellness across the board, whilst also assisting the adaption to the “new normal”, Ms Schubach mused.
“For those that optimise its benefits, employees can maintain connection despite physical distance. People are able to work flexibly which can benefit those who have children or other caring duties, as well as those who may travel long distances to get to work,” she said.
“By keeping in mind the challenges and the connection between those challenges and the psychological health implications, people are able to adjust their work habits as they require. For example, if social isolation was particularly challenging for some, that individual may be more actively engaging in VC calls or coming into the office part-time. If blurred work-life boundaries are an issue, conversations around limiting non-actionable, non-urgent correspondence outside of working hours may be had.
“The psychological health of employees ultimately benefits employers through increased productivity and efficiency, allowing both individuals and law firms to flourish.”