The case for better mental health support

Clifford Chance’s recent decision to extend its trainee wellbeing programme is a positive step towards recognising the seriousness and importance of mental health at work.

This news follows in the footsteps of Hogan Lovells, which recently brought a counselling service in-house. However, while this proactive approach has been welcomed by the majority of legal professionals, some commented that an inability to deal with stress reflected a “personal weakness” in sufferers.

As well as being unhelpful in tackling the stigma of mental health at work, blaming “personal weakness” also belies the indiscriminate nature of stress and mental health. These issues can affect anyone at any time – regardless of seniority, history or supposed resilience. It is up to leaders to set a positive example and lead from the top, championing support, understanding and openness when it comes to mental health, not only because it matters to their people, but because it matters to their firm.

Let’s not underestimate the impact of personal wellbeing and engagement on professional performance. Research from Bupa shows that professional services firms could benefit from a £500m uplift in productivity, if employees felt a higher level of physical and mental wellbeing. A “just get on with it” mentality is not the right approach to tap into this additional revenue – and is likely to damage performance over the long term.

Every sportsperson understands the importance of physical rest with regards to performance. But few recognise that this also applies in business and that maintaining good physical and mental health is critical to business success. An athlete would not expect to train relentlessly, so why do we expect those in law to work long hours with little recognition that they need to look after their minds?

The heavy workloads and long hours that are standard practice in the legal world mean that a certain level of stress is only natural. But it is vital that legal professionals are encouraged to actively balance and manage the demands of the job and that they feel able to speak up if their level of stress is becoming an issue. Allowing employees a break from the pressure is an important tool in maintaining engagement, retaining the best talent and making the most of billable time.

Supporting employees in managing stress and mental health does not require deep psychological expertise. It takes understanding, openness and a keen eye. The first signs of entrenched stress are often small changes – from a sudden lack of energy to uncharacteristic irascibility. Spotting these warning signs early and offering a confidential and supportive ear means that a positive outcome can be reached speedily for both individual and firm.  

Culture transformation and strong leadership are the two critical factors that will drive change for the legal sector. Typically, the legal profession values strength and tenacity, so speaking out about stress or mental health difficulties requires a vulnerability that goes against the grain – and causes undue worry for the individual in terms of the impact on their reputation, future career and opportunities to work on high-profile cases or deals.

We need to break the culture of silence around mental health to one of openness where every employee feels able to ask for help, and that these employees are given the correct support and treatment path. Only then will employees be in the state of mind to win.

Clifford Chance and Hogan Lovells have set the bar for the whole industry in creating the framework for these open conversations and a supportive culture. And where they lead others must surely follow.

Patrick Watt is director of corporate at Bupa