Grant Pritchard is working to improve mental health within the legal profession. He is President of the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand and Customer Legal Business Partner at Spark New Zealand. He helped establish and lead Spark’s mental health community and program. Pritchard also established the Headfit Foundation, aimed at transforming how we talk about and address mental health at work, and the HeadFit Awards, New Zealand’s first national workplace mental health awards program. We talk to him about his journey in the workplace mental health space.
Where did your mental health journey begin?
My real introduction happened in Australia when I lost a close workmate to depression and suicide. Prior to that, when I was 16, I lost a school friend. With my workmate Lucy, I didn’t recognize at the time that she wasn’t OK. It made me reflect and ask myself what more I could have done - what I could have said differently and how I could have better supported her. We all have moments when we’re confronted by things that we’re not ready for. And we have choices in terms of how we respond. That doesn’t mean blaming yourself. For me, it meant asking myself how I might be better equipped to identify if someone around me was struggling and take appropriate steps to support that person.
As a leader, what’s your advice when people encounter someone who is struggling? What is the best way of being there?
At the interpersonal level, when a person is not doing well it’s about not just leaving it. In Kiwi culture, we can be very reserved – especially at work. We don’t want to be nosy, and it can get in the way of us being there for the people around us at work or beyond who might be struggling.
The first step is be aware of the people around you at work. Trust your ‘Spidey senses’ – if you don’t think someone’s doing OK, don’t ignore that. Remember that being there for a workmate doesn’t mean you’re providing a clinical role or need to solve all their problems. Think of yourself as a caring listener and a ‘bridge to support’.
Law is a notoriously high-pressure job. How do you rate lawyers’ mental health?
There are a lot of variables, a combination of your working environment, the people surrounding you at work and how they roll, your team culture, and the specific stuff on your plate, both at home and at work. While I don’t think lawyers’ mental health is necessarily much poorer than it was five or 10 years ago, our younger lawyers are starting to say, “How am I right now? It’s not okay, I can’t stay in this mode.” We’re starting to better understand the pressure performance curve and make healthier choices about how we manage work and stress.
Because our wellbeing is dynamic and subjective, it is important that we don’t just focus on initiative-based responses. You can’t just run a lunch-and-learn on resilience and think you’re done. It’s about culture change, about recognizing this is not a tripping hazard in a workplace where you staple the carpet down or put up a sign. We can do more. We can listen to our people and take a holistic view in creating a workable strategy that meets their needs. This also means that we need to better understand the acute and systemic internal and external pressures that can be facing the firm environment and the in-house team environment. How can we identify and address unhealthy pressures? How are we creating skills and confidence in our team members so they can effectively navigate stressful situations?
Mental health impacts us all yet there’s a stigma attached. How can we change this and better support our people?
There are two aspects. First, better equipping our leaders and people managers to support staff who may be struggling. Imagine if you were in a state of mental distress and the response from your leader was, “You’re not coping. Why don’t you take a few days of stress leave? I’ll get someone else in the team to pick up your important projects and work.”
Instead, we need to listen to the staff member, ask them what supports they need, and ask them which work they feel confident continuing (if they need to change how they’re working to support their recovery). It also means respecting the person’s privacy and agreeing with them how and whether you’ll talk about their situation with the wider team. Being open about mental health challenges creates a positive culture around mental health (and can help teammates understand why certain changes are being made in the team), but this needs to be handled carefully and only with the consent of the person concerned.
Secondly, the onus is on us to take a holistic view of wellbeing and work. How we work, how organizations are structured and how we deliver a thriving workforce. If we only focus on addressing individual instances of poor mental wellbeing, we can miss important common themes and structural or systemic issues that are creating challenges for mental wellbeing. If we want sustainable performance at work, we need to put wellbeing at the center. By designing a healthier way of working and taking a systems-based approach, we can fix the work and not focus solely on band-aiding the person.
Can you explain the importance of role modeling in a team?
Role modelling healthy behaviors means doing what you expect your team members to do. Because of our Kiwi culture, much is unspoken within the workplace. When it comes to workplace mental health and wellbeing, your team will watch what you do – not just what you say. This is why role modelling from leaders is so important. By role modelling healthy behavior at work, you signal that wellbeing priorities and initiatives are authentic and give your team members permission to participate and follow your lead.
What role can in-house lawyers play in promoting wellbeing for private practice lawyers?
In the legal context, in-house lawyers can be a risk factor or a protective factor for the wellbeing of our private practice counterparts. In-house lawyers have a role to play, and demonstrate leadership in this space, by taking a ‘healthy briefing’ approach with their supporting law firms. This means having open conversations about capacity and prioritization, setting clear expectations on work product – and above all, setting realistic deadlines for work. It also means calling healthy working expectations to private practice lawyers if we start seeing things like emails turning up at 3am.
What would you say to organizations that are just starting on their workplace mental health journey?
Creating mentally healthier workplaces is ultimately about improving workplace culture. This is a journey, not an excursion and we’re aiming for progress, not perfection. It’s OK for you to start from where you are – listening, acting with humility, and learning from other workplaces who are leading in this space. Above all, be encouraged. Know that by taking positive steps to improve mental health in your workplace, you’re doing the right thing for your people.
Some of the most exciting, fulfilling moments of my legal careers have been in-house. Working as an in-house lawyer has allowed me to help change how New Zealanders live, work and play. Every day, I’m able to problem solve, innovate and create.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I have faced in supporting positive mental health has been letting go of my perfectionism. This is an ongoing challenge for me. Perfectionism has driven pressure and stress into myself and the people around me. By better understanding what ‘good enough’ looks like and keeping a healthy perspective on work, I’ve become a better lawyer and workmate.