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Workplaces can be a force for good

We all experience times of mental distress and mental ill health during our lives. Simply put, our brains – like the rest of our bodies – can experience illness and injury. Workplaces have the potential to be a force for good, creating positive cultural change around wellbeing. 

Grant Pritchard, President of the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand, is on a mission to improve mental wellbeing for lawyers. “Our wellbeing is universal, dynamic, holistic and subjective,” says Pritchard, referring to the Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum’s seminal framework for protecting mental health at work. “We all have physical and mental health, they’re constantly changing, they interact with both our work and home worlds, and we each experience challenges and situations differently. This requires us to take a different approach if we want to do better when it comes to mental health in the workplace.”

The dynamic nature of our physical, social, spiritual, occupational, and financial health contributes to the ebbs and flows of our overall mental wellness. As the Blackdog Institute reports, at any one time, one in six working people are suffering from poor mental health. In addition to the more conventional diagnosed mental illnesses, people can experience things like excessive worry, sleeping problems and fatigue. These symptoms might not constitute a diagnosed mental illness, but they can significantly impact how we function at work.

The World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health is “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Mental health and wellbeing touch every facet of our lives. A thriving workforce can drive better outcomes when it comes to productivity, engagement, sick leave, staff turnover and more. Organizations that recognize the importance of fostering mental health and wellbeing at work can miss out on these significant halo effects.

So, what does a culture of wellbeing in the workplace look like? It differs between employers, industries, and even countries, but some commonalities exist. Primarily a culture of wellbeing is centred in participation – where staff at all levels are engaged, equipped and empowered to prioritize wellbeing. 

Managers and leaders play a particularly important role – walking the walk and normalizing an environment where staff wellbeing is prioritized. By role modelling healthy approaches to work and life, senior business leaders can be pivotal in reinforcing and bringing organizational wellbeing strategies to life – and give staff permission to follow suit. Perhaps managers make an effort to eat lunch away from their desks, so their team can too. Maybe they genuinely check in on their team members each week. Or they might go home at a reasonable hour, allowing others to leave work without feelings of guilt. 

Wellbeing can look like providing people with meaningful work, clear opportunities and pathways for development. It can include treating people fairly and fostering strong high-trust relationships. In a legal context, it can include doing things like providing more junior lawyers with great mentoring and support as they grow into the role, or recognizing the overtime lawyers pull when delegating future workloads. Most importantly, it is checking in regularly on how the lawyer is going at a personal level – not just checking how their work is going. This is especially important when they have been involved in a strenuous case or matter. 

More holistic measures can be introduced to foster wellbeing, such as providing flexible working to let people create a schedule that best suits the demands of their personal lives. For example, introducing yoga classes to encourage mindfulness, promoting the use of Employee Assistance Programs to guide staff towards support, or letting staff know sick leave can be used for both mental and physical health issues, and providing ongoing programs to support and strengthen mental health awareness, inclusion and diversity. But, Pritchard says, “perhaps the most important thing we can do is listen to our people, understand their needs and provide wellbeing supports to meet those needs. By listening first, workplaces can develop highly impactful programmes that are tuned to the needs of their people.”

Economic research shows that mental health issues, namely depression and anxiety, are costing Australian businesses approximately $11 billion a year through reduced performance, absenteeism, staff turnover, and claims made against the business. These statistics are reflected across the globe, and organizations the world over are recognizing the significant costs to workplaces and society as a result of poor mental health. Pritchard says, “strengthening workplace approaches to mental health is the right thing to do. You don’t need any other reason to do more in this space. But your people will also love it, the business benefits can be significant and it can be a requirement under health and safety laws.”

Work can be a significant stressor in people's lives. It is where we spend the majority of our waking time and it supports people’s economic livelihoods. As such, an employer that can create a culture that recognizes and fosters positive wellbeing in their employees is effectively addressing harmful stress at work. That requires us to be more mindful and intentional about how we organise and perform work – including setting realistic deadlines, regularly checking in on workloads, recognizing excessive stress, and providing opportunities for rest and recovery.

Creating a supportive environment directly correlates to employee satisfaction, and according to research from Gallup there is a direct positive correlation between employee wellbeing and employee productivity, customer loyalty, business unit profitability, and staff retention. The ultimate goal is to create a workplace where people feel supported and it is a safe environment for staff to admit if they’re struggling. Pritchard says, “by creating a workplace culture that is supportive, high-trust and psychologically safe for staff, we empower them to perform and reach their potential.”

This article is part of a larger series on mental health and wellbeing for lawyers and workplaces that we featured in our latest issue of the InView Magazine.

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