We need to talk about mental health

Catrin Griffiths

In October 2012 Deloitte unveiled a sculpture of a black dog in its offices. It was a sign the firm had decided to tackle the issue of workplace mental health seriously, particularly depression.

Law firms are a bit behind the curve, but hopefully not for long. The City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) is a group of banks, accountants and some law firms that have realised that an organisation doing things on its own is a good start, but a collective approach is more powerful.

Lawyers are high achievers, so to exhibit any mental frailty is highly unsettling; first for the person undergoing stress, but also for their colleagues, who may not have the language or experience to deal with it. Speaking to some of those active in the CMHA, several themes emerge:

Get people talking

Narrative engages. Personal testimony is more important than anything; to hear from someone who has suffered mental ill-health is revelatory, as long as it’s preceded by some education. One of the reasons the Deloitte initiative got off the ground was that a senior partner who had suffered from depression came forward to speak about it.

Get someone senior to talk about the cause

Apologies to the excellent HR professionals in law firms, but unless a board-level sponsor is involved – preferably who’s put in the client hours and so has internal status – the issue of mental health will be filed away by many in the organisation as a pointlessly well-meaning initiative. 

Use expert support

A number of larger firms have set up employee assistance programmes; Hogan Lovells even has a dedicated counsellor. There is plenty of professional help available, but it won’t work unless there’s widespread cultural engagement.

Hire people with emotional intelligence

If someone is on the verge of a breakdown, the last thing they need is some gorilla with zero empathy. If you recruit ghastly mavericks who bring in the fees but can’t do human interaction, you won’t deal with the issue. So dealing with stress may mean looking at BlackBerry use, time off and change in pockets of the organisation.

The competitive drive in the City will never go away, but high-stress work is not incompatible with having a good mental health agenda.