Stress: the elephant in the room

Catrin Griffiths

Last week we reported that Hogan Lovells was setting up an on-site confidential counselling service for its staff as part of its health and wellbeing policy. This is not in response to the death of IP partner David Latham, says the firm, but it’s fair to say that that sad event would have concentrated many of his colleagues’ minds on how to deal with stress management and depression in the workplace.

 The natural cynicism with which many readers greet these initiatives can easily undermine their effectiveness. However, the climate is changing. When Herbert Smith (as it then was) launched a training programme back in 2009 to educate its staff about mental health issues it attracted considerable scepticism. They’re just protecting their back against civil claims, argued some. Many others questioned how City law firms could square a business model that expects long working hours, billing targets and all manner of micro-monitoring with a concern for stress management. Well, the answer is that you can’t. If you want City pay you have to accept that a certain amount of stress comes with the job. The question is how to manage it and how to talk about it.

That requires educating not only line managers but also the wider workforce to recognise early signs of mental health problems. You can have all the helplines you like, but if your organisational culture doesn’t confront the issue of stress and depression it’s unlikely anyone will get the most out of what services are available.

Since the days when Herbert Smith pioneered the issue of addressing mental health in law firms there has been a slow reduction in the level of stigma surrounding the topic. Social attitudes are changing; Stephen Fry has been a highly effective advocate on the issue and last year two MPs, Kevan Jones and John Woodcock, opened up about their experiences of depression.

Time, then, for a prominent City lawyer or two to do the same. The most effective thing any organisation can do is not just make counselling available but get a couple of people in very senior positions (and in private practice, that means fee-earners) to talk about their experiences. 

There are plenty of senior lawyers out there who have dealt with depression, bipolar disorder or stress. If they can be persuaded to open up, the whole profession will benefit.