Looking after firm mental health during covid-19

  • Mental health issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic and may affect staff
  • Firms need to be considerate and have open communication will all employees
  • Financial concerns should not preclude management from taking wellbeing seriously

Coronavirus-related issues currently account for 40% of the messages received by LawCare, a mental health and wellbeing charity for lawyers. It cannot be understated how drastic the impact of the pandemic can be on people’s wellbeing. In a profession already marked with high levels of stress and anxiety, firms need to manage employee mental health more than ever.

LawCare received its first covid-19-related contact on 10 March. Now, 40% of queries quote coronavirus as a major source of their issue. Many lawyers (26%) have expressed concerns about firms forcing them to come into the office, despite government advice. The next most common reason behind people contacting LawCare (21%) is that the pandemic is exacerbating existing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and loneliness – LawCare CEO Elizabeth Rimmer explaining that, “if you have anxiety or depression, often going into work helps people to manage it through routine and social contact”.

Other recurring issues that lawyers are facing include concerns about practicalities under lockdown conditions. Childcare, transport and house moves are consistent worries (12%), alongside the financial burden of potentially being furloughed, losing work or having pay cut (9%).  

With most of the profession working remotely, many are struggling to create a comfortable work-life balance. For some, this has manifested in finding it hard to focus. For others, it can swing the other way. Gone are the typical workplace distractions of coffees and co-worker chats. “You can find you haven’t got up for three hours as you’ve had no interruptions or just feel you have to work harder to prove you are working,” says Rimmer.

One of the hardest balancing acts for many lawyers is the pressure of childcare. Most schools are closed and parents may now have to juggle two full-time jobs: parenting and law. “Everyone has this view that we’re all just working from home,” Rimmer notes. “But what we’re actually doing is trying to live through a pandemic while doing our jobs and home schooling our children and doing all these other things. We can’t underestimate the impact of all of that.” She tells of an acquaintance who is looking after his two children all day while his partner – a doctor – works at a hospital. The lawyer’s billing targets have not changed and he is still expected to carry out childcare and home schooling alongside a full day’s work as a solicitor.

At the younger end of the profession, the pressures are no less severe. Many junior lawyers have expressed concerns about supervision. There have been reports of trainee solicitors put on furlough because of the difficulty of remote supervision. Without the foundations of an office environment, younger lawyers are unable to get informal advice from senior colleagues – instead having to make much more visible and formal efforts when they need help. “Often junior lawyers have an anxiety about asking questions in the first place,” Rimmer notes. “They’re worried what people will think because lawyers have this perfectionist mindset. It’s now even harder for them to seek that help and support.”

How can firms help?

Employers carry the burden of easing the strain that lawyers might be feeling throughout this period. Although the resources available to a managing partner will depend on the firm’s size and budget, there are, of course, measures that can apply to all. “You can’t over-communicate at this moment,” remarks Rimmer. Whether it is to break down a barrier halting a junior lawyer from asking a pertinent question or just to replicate the organic social interactions that colleagues miss, managers need to lead the way in terms of opening communication channels.

What would help are clear, structured lines of communication for both formal and informal contact. Monday morning or Friday afternoon check-ins where colleagues can share a drink, play a round of bingo or show off their pets could be immeasurably valuable. “Finding an opportunity for some form of social interaction online that’s not just about work is really important as it’s a dynamic from the workplace that people miss.”

Open commitment to employee wellbeing is crucial. Rimmer notes that it is important for leadership to demonstrate to the rest of the firm that they are also looking after their own mental health and taking it seriously. Further, managers need to consider the mental burden of these times and respond with compassion. Rimmer states: “As a manager, you have to think about what people are experiencing and show some sympathy and cut people some slack as they can’t work all the time to the same level that might have been expected pre-covid-19.”

Disseminating best practices on how to effectively work remotely should be on all firms’ ‘to do’ list, believes Karina Furga-Dąbrowska, Europe chief mindfulness officer at Dentons. “They should be offering tips and resources on how to stay healthy – both physically and emotionally.”

Additionally, staff in leadership positions should be instructed to look out for signs of acute stress or potential burnout. If staff members have been identified to be struggling, Furga-Dąbrowska recommends that even without an employee assistance programme in place, firms “should at least be able to refer their people to local counselling services”.

For bigger firms with a more generous budget to accommodate wellness objectives, employee assistance programmes should be looked into if they are not already in place. For example, pre-pandemic, Dentons offered mindfulness workshops and practice sessions. It also sports the NextTalent development programme, which brings in certified coaches for employees to develop emotional intelligence to manage stress, avoid conflict and regulate emotions. Since the global health emergency, Dentons has also introduced NextTalent Live, a weekly global video call with a similar function. “We have also introduced a Support Hotline providing confidential one-to-one coaching from volunteers from our leadership team,” adds Furga-Dąbrowska.

Balancing the scales

For senior members of management, while staff support is important, the continued viability of firms due to current economic uncertainty will be front of mind. It is a worry that staff will also be grappling with; the calls that LawCare receives from lawyers concerned about being furloughed often focus on the worry that,  if the firm is about to economise, furloughed staff will be first in the firing line.

Ultimately, it is all about open communication, Rimmer stating:  “You just have to be honest with people about what you’re facing.” As there is no economic precedent in this era for how markets will bounce back, that means communicating those doubts and explaining the reasoning behind any financial measures brought in.

However, Rimmer adds that this does not absolves managers from the need to take a considerate approach with staff. Billing targets may seem imperative right now, but compassion for the external challenges that employees are facing will not go unnoticed – nor will a lack of it: “You’ve got to think that as a leader in an organisation, your people are your greatest assets. How you treat them at this time is something people will remember after this is all over.” The job market may be more stationary than usual now, but mistreated staff will hardly stick around once it gets moving again.

Looking for help

If you are struggling, then it is vital that you seek some help as soon as possible. There are a few avenues available for lawyers feeling overwhelmed or stressed. If you are comfortable doing so, reach out to colleagues and explain your situation to see how your firm or organisation can help. Law firm assistance programmes should also be utilised where available.

Beyond your own organisation, there are also resources through entities like LawCare, as well as mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm that are free and can help you to proactively manage your stress levels through meditation.

Importantly, Rimmer recommends being kind to yourself. “We have a tendency as lawyers to be perfectionists. ‘We solve other people’s problems, not our own’, and admitting to them is a sign of weakness.” But that attitude should never result in your mental health being treated as secondary to anything else. Rimmer notes that in these exceptional times, sometimes it is the simplest things that need to be looked after. Make sure that you eat well, get exercise, have downtime, speak to friends and family, and try to sleep well.

For anyone feeling affected by issues raised in this piece, LawCare’s helpline can be reached at +44 0800 279 6888 from 9:00-17:30 Monday to Friday. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the United States, there are mental health resources for lawyers at the American Bar Association’s website, as well as through Harvard Law School. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is +1 800 273 8255. In Australia, resources are available on the Legal Practitioners’ Liability Committee and the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org. The LGBT Bar website also lists multiple international mental health resources.

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