Is flexible working the answer to stress in the legal profession?

Is flexible working the answer to stress in the legal profession?

 

“Some love the corporate environment: the after-work beers, the client dinners, the sense of belonging. “I hated that,” says Jack Celand, who trained at a top 10 UK law firm. “I couldn’t wait to get home after work. My body felt ruined from all the stress and strong coffee.”

Others agree. “There’s talk of burnout but people stick with it because it’s a long process getting the job,” says 28-year-old lawyer Olivia Smith.

Does this resonate with you?

The Guardian, the FT and LexisNexis are among the many publishers who have addressed the concept of stress in the legal sector. It is no secret that such a rewarding profession, at times, asks a lot from its lawyers.

Our own research has taught us that the majority (76%) of solicitors felt that stress/mental wellbeing in the legal profession is a major issue, with over a third of solicitors experiencing stress at work.

So, what’s the solution? Is flexible working a viable panacea for these challenges?

 

“Agility” and the ability to combat stress

 

Being “agile” is becoming a key factor in attracting and retaining law firm talent. The up-and-coming generations in particular, are likely to expect more from the culture of their employer.

This is because the culture of their generation is fundamentally different. They are taught mindfulness practices, they have yoga, and massages, happening on their workplace premises, during work time. They are taught to speak about how they feel and told to speak up if they disagree with structures, management and how things are run. To the younger generations, this isn’t new fangled corporate culture at play, it’s their way of life.

Mental wellbeing has also increasingly become a talking point across industries, with charities reporting a rise in calls from lawyers to their support services.

In its latest annual report, the charity LawCare, which runs a helpline and peer support service, stated that the number of legal professionals contacting it for emotional support continues to rise year on year, with a total of 677 people seeking help in 2019, up 8% on 2018.

“The majority — 67% — of callers to the helpline were women last year, while 53% of all callers were either trainees or pupils, or had been qualified for less than five years.

The most common reasons for calls were lawyers looking for help with stress (26%), and depression (12%) and bullying (12%).” (Law.com)

Flexible working has now become ‘normal’ in workplace cultures, with a growing number of large law firms offering flexible working to their employees.

Legal Week reporting last year that almost three quarters of lawyers at large firms in the UK now working from home at least once a month.

Flexible working creates space for employees to feel more adult and trusted in what they are delivering: 

“For anyone juggling caring responsibilities or other commitments alongside their day job, flexible working can make a massive difference to stress levels.  The lawyers who come to work with Obelisk tell us it is because we create opportunities for them to fit their career around the rest of their life, instead of it being the other way around.” Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support, a legal services provider which specialises in connecting lawyers who want to work flexibly with projects for in-house and law firm teams.

 

 

A culture of presenteeism

 

Dana also notes:

“There’s no doubt that flexible working is part of the answer to stress in the profession.

A culture of presenteeism in the office, which can distort individuals’ work-life balance and the mental and physical drain of commuting can all add extra and unnecessary stress to lawyers’ working days.  In our report, Back to the Future: Reshaping Law Firm Culture, published last year, we outlined how the industry needs to change their culture, office spaces and use of technology to avoid burning-out their teams.”

Perhaps we have all experienced a situation at work whereby you feel you need to ‘prove’ you’re working, by being ‘present’ at the office. In strict office cultures, unless you’re not seen to be hammering at your keyboard, with steam coming off your phone and working evenings and weekends, it seems as though you’re not working hard enough.

Although the perspectives around this idea are evidently changing, the potential of this mindset from employers can very damaging for the employee.

It’s easy to see it from both sides—it’s difficult to manage a large corporate team and get the best results without having visibility over what they are doing.

Equally, it’s difficult to feel valued as an employee if you feel you need to be seen to be working—visible at all hours in the office. In future-thinking and modern cultures, looking busy is no longer a focus, and there are evidently those who have other commitments and would inevitably struggle with the expectations of these environments.

 

The company is your friend

 

In research conducted by PwC around the way we work—a survey to support HR functions—they raised the concept of workplace insecurity, and the effect it has on the employee’s wellbeing.

The survey states that 74 % of CEOs said that geopolitical uncertainty is one of their major concerns and 50 % were worried about climate change.

Looking more broadly, it’s apparent that there are other factors about the world, international politics, terrorism - and of course, Brexit - that are perceived by individuals to be less stable in today's world.

A few decades ago, a person’s individual stability would come from their community—the family, local community groups, sport clubs, choirs, the church. Latterly, and as people get busier, long-term employment opportunities seem less likely for the younger generations, the concept of security for the individual equally appears less likely.

Understandably, this contributes significantly to a person’s stress management. Dana also touches on this:

“Flexible working on its own isn’t a magic bullet.  Heavy workloads, the decisions and responsibilities lawyers have to manage and the competitive nature of training and practising as a lawyer can all contribute to excess stress. 

Leaders in-house and in law firms need to be proactive in designing and propagating a culture that nurtures and sustains talent for the long-term, role-modelling behaviours that show they are managing their own stress levels and helping colleagues to look after their mental health.”

There is a need for security. There is a space here for companies to provide a safe and caring environment in which employees can grow.

In effect, companies can create opportunities to become more of a social platform than they are today. There is a space to provide social stability, forums for personal development and an outlet for the many harmful factors causing stress.

On this point, in particular, PwC notes: "They’re not only a platform to “exchange labour for pay”, but should also offer opportunities for social interaction beyond work for their members. All of this will give employees a sense of belonging, feeling safe and being cared for."[i]

To read other articles in our Bellwether series, please see here.

 

 

 

[i] The way we work – in 2025 and beyond, 2017

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About the author:

Amy leads the thought leadership and content marketing strategy for LexisNexis UK, creating insights for corporates and legal professionals. She is an established writer and researcher, having contributed in publications, such as The Law Society, LPM, City A.M. and Financial IT.