In this week of Mental Health Awareness it is encouraging to read how many firms across the country have committed to support the mental health of their staff. The key differentiator is how such support is being delivered in each firm.
At Paris Smith one of the pillars of our vision is to have an engaged and inspired staff. We start from the premise that people approach their work motivated to do a good job and the senior management team is committed to enable the people who work for the firm to reach their full potential.
We recognised that we needed to lead from the front and I, as the managing partner, openly shared my personal vulnerability from times when I was seriously ill and feared for my life, to the time when I conducted my first contested small claims trial as a newly qualified solicitor.
The first experience was when I was about to undergo a kidney transplant. I had been living with renal failure for six years. Neither of my two young daughters had seen me well during their lives at that time. I lay in bed the night before the seven hour transplant operation feeling great stress and anxiety wondering whether this would be my last night of life. Would I survive the operation? What would happen to my family if I didn’t? Fortunately I came through and am here to tell the tale. Both experiences caused me stress but for different reasons.
It is recognised that there is a causal link between mental resilience and performance. This is regularly seen and commented upon in the world of sport. The armed forces and emergency services are also mindful of it. The statement is equally relevant to business and in particular law firms.
National statistics highlight the issue. The cost to the economy of poor mental health is calculated to be upwards of £40bn a year. It is also no longer a taboo subject with it featuring in our news frequently and discussed by members of the royal family and well known personalities.
Our first step towards supporting the mental wellbeing of our staff and partners, was to train three members of the firm (two partners and the director of HR) to be mental health first aiders (MHFAs). We have in place an employee assistance scheme and mental health specialists externally to provide such support as is necessary. It is important to recognise that the MHFAs are the first point of contact if any one calls for help but will not offer any treatment. They are the signposts as to where the appropriate professional healthcare support and treatment can be found.
Our next step was to start the conversation across the firm about mental health. We engaged with three military veterans from The Eleos Partnership, who have had very personal experiences of mental health issues from their time in the armed forces. The former soldiers have huge experience of recovery from mental illness and challenges to enable staff to develop their mental resilience. They draw on their personal insights of their individual recovery journeys and experiences in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each has overcome life changing mental and physical scars of battle. As part of their mental resilience programme, they shared the strategies which they have each developed, and apply equally to the corporate and professional workplace as well as the military environment.
Showing vulnerability, being authentic and demonstrating an unqualified commitment to the mental wellbeing has been well received. A staff survey was overwhelming in its endorsement of our initiative. However, we have not started the journey to receive plaudits, it is part of our DNA as a firm to encourage and inspire our people to succeed. By giving them the tools to recognise when their bucket of stress is getting full, also allows them to spot the signs in others at work and at home. This is part of our responsibility as an employer. There are times when the pressure on each of us gets too much and we need to take some time out. Recognising that time for ourselves and our colleagues is very important if we are to perform at our best and for our colleagues to do so.
We are determined to retain a culture in which staff at any level in the firm feel comfortable in discussing a mental health issue without fear of being judged or criticised.
We make it clear that a trouble shared is a trouble halved and that showing emotion/vulnerability is a sign of strength rather than the opposite. Take time to ask how people are feeling, show real and genuine interest. Wait and listen to what you hear when asking “How are you?”. Don’t simply walk on by.
Work is a place in which the wellbeing of each of us and our staff should be enhanced. Building a culture in which mental health and resilience is talked about in an open and supportive environment will enable a greater sense of loyalty and trust among the people in the business, stronger performance, greater clarity of the values of the business and attract a wider talent pool and more clients. In short, people like to work for and to deal with businesses which treat their staff properly and as fellow human beings.
Peter Taylor is managing partner of Paris Smith