By Charlene Gisele, The legal sector is infamous for the toll it takes on professionals. What changes must be made to better safeguard lawyers’ mental and physical health?
How would you define “sustainable high performance” in the legal sector?
Sustainable high performance is about recognising that performance lives on a spectrum. On the one end, there is sustainable high performance, which is excelling at the work you do and delivering stellar results but doing so in a way that is sustainable, meaning you are able to continue to be successful in the long run without sacrificing your wellness.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is burnout, which is when chronic stress is not managed efficiently and there are not enough periods of rest between intense bouts of work. Over time, this stress begins to impact wellbeing at work. It can often be difficult to see it preventatively because of a culture of ‘stick it out or burn out’ that is prevalent in law.
How can sustainable high performance be achieved through corporate wellness programmes and initiatives?
Although outstanding lawyers have extraordinary lawyering skills, we do not necessarily learn about self-care either at law school or while working in a law firm. Lawyers are not taught how to factor in the most effective ways to rest and recover in between intense workloads and to factor in time to prime themselves for the next ‘round’ of intensity. Initiatives that help employees recognise and break down the stigma around stress are the most effective first step for building a sustainable high-performance culture.
The second step is to educate lawyers on how they can manage their stress levels with simple but effective self-care and recovery strategies that are optimised for the corporate environment. Building a culture where self-care and recovery become the norm after intense bouts of work means lawyers can effectively manage work stress and optimise their performance and wellbeing for the long run.
What techniques do firms typically employ to ensure lawyer wellness? Are they effective?
Firms are making a real effort (particularly post-pandemic) to be more proactive in looking after their lawyers’ health and wellness. The pandemic has put health at the forefront of everyone’s mind and, coupled with the remote working movement, has led to many law firms embracing digital solutions and searching for new and innovative approaches to ensure lawyer wellness.
What I believe has hindered previous attempts to ensure lawyer wellness is that they were not aimed at empowering lawyers with actionable behaviours that are suitable for the demands of their work. Law firms typically employ generic ‘one size fits all’ solutions. I believe there is a very strong individual element to wellness recommendations. It is about providing a variety of options that can be tailored to individuals and teams to meet their specific work-recovery needs.
What steps towards ensuring wellness would you recommend?
For many lawyers the concept of self-care and wellness at work is novel; hence I recommend hands-on, interactive workshops, as these maximise engagement and help to break down barriers that may be there due to perceived ‘stigma’ around wellness. Wellness workshops are most effective when they are interactive, as this maximises attendees’ engagement and encourages a playful sense of curiosity, fostering camaraderie and helping to build a culture of wellness firm-wide that lasts. Above all, they work as well in person or when provided remotely.
How can these be implemented effectively across a firm?
The most powerful way I have found is to combine workshops with in-house coaching, which supports firm-wide initiatives but also allows me to give individual support to fee earners that may need it the most. These ‘burnout prevention interventions’ can be powerful preventative measures to support a lawyer currently struggling with work fatigue.
Since many lawyers are still reserved to open up about the stress they feel, having an in-house coach can be a very powerful way of changing culture quickly, as I am able to build relationships and deeply understand the work culture and work-life demands they face. I can then offer personalised self-care and performance coaching.
Have you seen examples of positive outcomes of these methods in the past?
I have seen dramatic positive outcomes from my sustainable high performance methods. I have seen ‘physically visible’ improvements (such as a reduction in panic attacks, anxiety or various aches, pains and tensions). However, I find the most long-lasting and powerful outcomes are the ones where I begin to notice a mindset shift around wellness at work – when I hear clients start to regain motivation and drive and re-kindle the passion for the law they once felt so strongly, whereas before I would get comments like: “I feel like I am constantly battling against a current”. It is gratifying to hear feedback where lawyers feel as though they are empowered and can take action against work stress, and where they now feel that the law firm is proactive in ensuring their wellness and performance. Another example is hearing clients say they feel more ‘health-confident’ when returning to the offices after long periods of remote working.
What can be gained from adopting a more active approach towards lawyer wellbeing – both for individual lawyers and for their firms?
At a firm level, it encourages a culture that understands the needed balance between wellness and performance. This is the balance required for sustainability, and the industry leaders of the future are those investing in sustainability.
High levels of burnout, employee turnover and sick days within a workforce impact performance. It is therefore crucial to build a resilient, inclusive and diverse workforce for a sustainable future and to align the firms with ESG frameworks. Put simply, happy and healthy employees are more productive, performant and effective.
By 2029, the Millennial and Gen Z generations will make up 72% of the world’s workforce. These generations place a greater importance on sustainability concerns and will expect more from employers on these issues. A company’s wellness strategy is becoming increasingly important to attracting and retaining talent, as well as cultivating a sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘loyalty’ to the firm to avoid turnover.
At the individual level, it sets in an understanding and expectation in the lawyer that ‘burnout’ is not inevitable and one’s health and wellness does not need to be sacrificed for career success. By understanding how we need to balance work stress with recovery, lawyers can take proactive steps to perform self-care practices which are supported and understood by their law firm and team.
Corporate wellness is a two-way street. Law firms have to play their part in fostering a culture of wellness, but so too do individual lawyers have to champion their own wellness. It is this negotiation that I am actively engaged in and one that I believe is going to have a powerful and lasting impact on the health, wellness and performance of lawyers.