Promoting a good working culture in law firms - Part 1: What is a manager's role?
In May 2019, The Times reported that there was a looming mental health crisis facing the profession. Lexis Nexis’ 2019 report (The Bellwether Report 2019: Stress in the Legal Profession — Problematic or Inevitable), found that almost 66% of solicitors are experiencing high levels of stress, with 75% reporting that stress and mental wellbeing is a major issue for the legal profession. At the junior end of the profession, the picture is bleaker, with the annual Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) survey reporting this year that of the 1,800 junior lawyers surveyed, 93% reported experiencing stress at work with almost a 25% of those reporting severe or extreme levels of stress. Deloitte estimates that businesses are losing in excess of £1,500 per employee per year due to the costs associated with poor mental health.
Another alarming finding from the JLD annual survey of almost 2,000 lawyers surveyed was that many lawyers said they used alcohol as a coping mechanism and that it was having a negative impact on their mental health. Survey findings also demonstrated that alcohol and law firm drinking culture contributed towards bullying and harassment, diversity and productivity – all of which lend themselves to a poor workplace culture.
All of this is extremely worrying given all the recent media coverage relating to law firms and other professional services firms and the underlying “booze culture” reflected in most social events having alcohol as the main focus. This in turn has been linked to a number of cases being investigated by regulators where allegations of sexual misconduct have been made where alcohol was involved. This demonstrates the ongoing need to prioritise wellbeing and its importance in achieving a good working culture. In terms of achieving this, we have put together some practical tips for lawyers to consider.
This does not need to be about reinventing the wheel and there is a host of information already out there to help you improve your workplace culture. For example, off the back of the JLD survey, JLD issued guidelines on creating a healthy alcohol culture in the legal profession. This was after the survey highlighted that some junior lawyers felt excluded from core networking and firm social events due to events revolving around the consumption of alcohol. Such guidelines can be used to inform inclusive alcohol policies which firms are being encouraged to develop and implement. Practical examples arising from such policies include firms choosing to provide an array of enticing soft drinks at work events, such as “mocktails” and high end soft drink options, as opposed to the mundane selections of soft and fizzy drinks usually on offer.
Plenty of specialist organisations have undertaken research looking at particular drivers behind workplace wellbeing. Use these resources and review their research findings to really understand areas where you, as a firm, can improve. Look to explore opportunities for your employees to attend wellbeing seminars at work or webinars covering a range of topic areas, run by these expert organisations. Employees are likely to feel more valued and supported if such options are available to them.
Think about other initiatives which might boost employee wellbeing, both from a physical and mental health perspective. Firms could offer a cycle to work scheme, free fruit in the office, complimentary yoga/Pilates/fitness sessions which take place in the workplace, or provide access to a monthly on-site beautician at subsidised rates, on the basis that employees struggle to attend such appointments when working long hours and / or commuting. If this doesn’t work for your employees (and remember seek their views on what would work for them), you could provide each employee with a wellness subsidy which they can use for whatever they would like to undertake to improve their own wellbeing. This will very much depend on the individual but it could be used for a gym membership, it could be attending music lessons or learning a language.
Finally, consider providing employees with access to employee assistance schemes, including access to a confidential helpline and a counselling service, so that they have a means to discuss any difficulties they might be experiencing, with someone other than a colleague.
Research consistently shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and they are valued and supported by their employer, they tend to have higher wellbeing levels, be more committed to the organisation’s goals and, importantly, they perform better. This might sound obvious, but employee engagement is not a simple thing to achieve, let alone maintain and improve upon. Nonetheless, a simple “thank you” can go a long way.
Really think about how you can keep your employees engaged. Feeling valued is a large part of this and investing in improving appraisal processes and regular pay reviews and bonus payment schemes will all contribute to employees feeling valued, as well as motivated to perform to the best of their ability. Consider conducting employee surveys to obtain feedback so that you are aware of areas where you are performing well and receiving positive feedback from employees as well as areas where feedback reflects a need for improvement. Be proactive in reporting back to your employees the findings of such surveys, with a detailed action plan of how you intend to improve in underperforming areas.
Depending upon the nature of your business and the roles employees hold, you may want to think about offering some in-built flexibility in respect of working arrangements. This not only helps employees to feel supported and minimises the risk of them feeling overwhelmed by their workload, but it may also lead to a greater retention in talent, as you might lose fewer staff to companies where a more flexible working pattern is on offer. While this might not be an option for everyone, it is certainly something to give more thought to, as unsurprisingly perhaps, this has a knock-on effect on another key area – equality, diversity and inclusion (which we will address in the third and final blog in this series).
Develop, implement and keep policies under review
Make sure that you have an extensive range of comprehensive policies covering key areas such as wellbeing, flexible (and remote) working, appraisals, supervision, benefits package, holiday, promotion, remuneration, career breaks, leave associated with any caring responsibilities (be this paternity, maternity, adoption etc). Remember that these need to be regularly reviewed and updated, and listen to feedback from your employees as to areas of policies which might need to be re-visited to reflect any changes in, for example, legislation.
Your office environment should reflect the wider values and culture of your firm. There are a few simple things that can help boost wellbeing and productivity. For example, try to let natural light into the workspace. Studies regularly show that natural light boosts energy levels, mood and productivity in the workplace and those exposed to natural light often find it easier to sleep and as a result are more revitalised and generally healthier.
Think about having some plants or greenery in the work place. This can offer an external stimulus for our brains and give us something else to focus on, essentially providing rest for the mind, without us knowing. Additionally, plants can make some people feel more “at home”, and therefore make us feel more relaxed and comfortable in our working environment.
Think about adding some colour to your workspace. Bright colours are more likely to suppress melatonin (the hormone which can make us sleepy) and boost energy levels, so you are more likely to be alert and focussed for longer periods of time. This is likely to increase productivity as well. Finally, include some personality in your office design – your firm’s culture should be in harmony with your workplace environment. This was also help employees understand, connect to and feel part of the firm and the firm’s values should resonate with them (particularly if the firm has a positive culture).
Finally, provide employees with the right equipment so that they can carry out their role comfortably in the office. This will include office equipment (adjustable height desks and chairs and other adaptable devices such as keyboard, mouse and double screens). The more comfortable you are, the more likely you will be able to concentrate on your work, and the more productive you will be.
Some law firms have an extremely good culture when it comes to promoting wellbeing, but others not so much. A well-publicised example of the latter was seen in the Sovani James case (see SRA v James  4 WLR 163) where the Divisional Court observed: “the pressure on the respondent was caused in large part by a culture in the firm which was toxic and uncaring.” No firm will want its culture to be regarded in this way, let alone formally reported as such by a court of law and failing to have in mind the wellbeing of your staff is increasingly becoming a risk issue. The danger is that a firm could have the best risks systems and processes in place, but if there is an inherently toxic culture where wellbeing is not prioritised or regarded as a focus area, those processes will be wholly ineffective. Simply put, there is a risk that a firm’s bad culture can - and more often than not will - drive bad behaviours.
Jessica Clay is a Senior Associate in the Regulatory department and specialises in legal services regulation, with a focus on regulatory compliance, legal ethics, investigations and public law matters.
This blog first appeared on Legal Compliance Insight on 15 April 2020
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