Opinion: Trish McLellan
There have been welcome improvements among employers across the legal community in providing mental health and wellbeing support for employees, but there is still some way to go
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) estimates that mental health issues such as stress, depression and anxiety cost the UK economy about £70 billion a year in lost productivity at work, benefit payments and health care expenditure.
There is a strong, proven business case for organisations to promote good physical and mental health for all staff. Actively promoting staff wellbeing leads to greater productivity, better morale, better retention of valued and experienced staff, and reduced sickness absence.
Research by Mind, the UK mental health charity, shows that more than one in five people will call in sick rather than admit to a mental health issue. More than three out of 10 people feel they can’t talk to their manager if they are experiencing stress, depression or anxiety. Interestingly, the research also shows that over half of employers would like to do more about staff wellbeing, but don’t know how.
The legal profession is no exception, and this was the wider societal context for the LawCare Mental Health Matters Conference, held on World Mental Health Day, 10 October last. It was also a celebration of our 20-year anniversary. LawCare has witnessed significant growth and change in the legal profession over those two decades, as organisations start to embrace the mental health agenda and recognise the need to look after those who need support with mental health issues.
We have played our part, moving from being a charity that supported lawyers who had difficulties with alcohol, to one that offers help with issues ranging from stress to depression to anxiety to bullying at work, right across the profession in the UK and Ireland.
Over the last 20 years it has become more acceptable to talk about mental health. When LawCare was set up in 1997 it was difficult for people to get support, or sympathy, and it seemed as if no one wanted to know. While there has been a gradual sea change, this has accelerated over the past two years. In the legal profession, this has gone hand in hand with what we have seen more widely in society, where celebrities and sportspeople have been talking openly about their mental health issues, the Royal Family joined the Heads Together campaign, and the Government has pledged more support. We have also had campaigns such as This is Me and Time to Change reaching into our profession.
It is encouraging to see across the profession at all stages across the legal lifespan – education, training and practice – that the mental health agenda is being taken on board and the barriers to talking about mental health in the legal workplace are being tackled. It is particularly important that we educate those coming into the legal profession now about mental health, so that they are equipped to recognise the signs that something may be wrong and seek help early.
LawCare launched a new booklet on the topic on World Mental Health Day. Entitled Look After Others – Tips for Good Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work, the booklet provides top tips for both staff and employers about how to provide mental health and wellbeing support to colleagues and employees. We know that it is significant for senior leaders to get on board with any mental health and wellbeing initiatives, as it sends a clear message that staff wellbeing matters, and colleagues take cues from how leaders behave: leaders can demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to staff wellbeing by walking the talk. Our top tips booklet is available on our website: www.lawcare.org.uk
Above all, we hope that these changes in attitude will continue to roll out across the legal community, and that all organisations put in place strategies to support their people with mental health issues. We are moving forward, but we still have some way to go. We hope that, in another 20 years’ time, the profession will look entirely different where mental health is concerned, and that anyone with a problem will be able to talk about it openly and find support.
Trish McLellan is LawCare Coordinator Scotland and Northern Ireland
LawCare supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing across the legal community. Our free, confidential and independent helpline has trained staff and volunteers to listen and support with any issues. Call 0800 279 6888, 365 days a year, 9am-7.30pm weekdays, 10am-4pm weekends and bank holidays, or visit www.lawcare.org.uk