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Healthy workplaces healthy lawyers

Healthy workplaces healthy lawyers

By Phoebe Blank

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Workplace relations specialist at MinterEllison Phoebe Blank shares her insights on positive steps that can make a difference.

Investing in a strong, resilient and enjoyable legal workplace community can support positive health outcomes in the profession. Employers and employees are urged to take the time to implement good health practices in the workplace.

Preventing mental ill health and promoting good mental health benefits not just the individual and their employers, but the whole legal workplace community. For employers, a resilient workplace is one where employees are encouraged to actively invest in their health and offered a buffer against adversity for when challenges arise.

As lawyers, we are trained to be committed advocates for our clients, representing them with resolve, focus, and drive. Despite this training and years of practice and experience, we too have times when we are feeling less capable then we know we can be, are fatigued, or experiencing stress. Working in a positive environment that supports the pursuit of good health outcomes can support both employees of law practices and employers in these times, and advance the important objective of creating a resilient and sustainable legal workplace community.
Here are four ways that we can all contribute:
 

Environment

Since most full-time employees can spend approximately one-third of their time at work, it’s important to ensure the workplace is promoting good health. A firm that promotes good health is a firm that encourages exercise, allows for breaks and may even offer additional workplace perks such as a reduced gym membership, discounted health insurance, or an employee assistance program (EAP) such as the one provided free to LIV members (https://www.liv.asn.au/Professional-Practice/Supporting-You/Your-Psychological-Wellbeing/Wl). Converge International is the EAP provided to LIV members and offers confidential, personal coaching and counselling to support a variety of short-term personal or work issues.

The physical environment of a workplace plays a large role in supporting the health and wellbeing of employees. Consider, is there natural light in the workplace? Are there windows or indoor plants? Does the workplace provide ample tea and coffee, or the occasional healthy snack for staff?

Organised social events within the firm can also assist workplaces to foster a greater sense of connection among employees, mutual trust and an enjoyable sense of camaraderie. Many firms pay for their staff to join an organised sporting team at lunchtimes, such as the competitions provided by Active Melbourne City Sports (http://amcs.melbourne.vic.gov.au/) or provide monthly Friday night social events.
 

Workplace policy and practice

Internal workplace policies relating to bullying, harassment and discrimination are strong resources for employees to feel protected in the workplace from adverse behaviour and to reach their potential in their careers. Bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace negatively impact individuals while also harming the workplace and should not be tolerated at any level. These behaviours diminish the collective sense of security and mutual respect that we all need within our working environment.

Legal workplaces should also provide regular training to their staff on their policies to reinforce appropriate behaviour and to satisfy their obligations to provide a safe workplace under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic).

Beyond this, workplaces that have policies in place to ensure employment security of tenure for their employees are likely to foster a more enjoyable culture of long-term working relationships that are ultimately to everyone’s gain. For example, firms that provide for additional parental leave may assist their employees to know that they are secure and supported in their employment when they start a family, and at the same time, know that they can genuinely pursue work-life balance.
 

Tools to identify and respond to poor mental health

A resilient workplace community is one where not only the employer is looking after the employees but also employees are looking after each other. The warning signs of a colleague’s poor mental health can be exhibited through a range of different behaviours, including absenteeism, reduced motivation, social withdrawal, aggression or a sudden change in a co-worker’s demeanour. Acting on this can be as simple as going out of your way to ask a co-worker if they are “OK”, having an office buddy, or by simply engaging a colleague in a chat in the tea room.

Given the high rates of depression and anxiety in the legal profession, now more than ever all participants need to recognise and contribute to a culture of connection and mutual support. We can all do this through taking part in networking at legal events, playing team sports with colleagues, or joining professional committees. What matters most is that we all invest in demonstrating these values in our interactions with our peers, and see that supporting each other is one of our unwritten obligations to contribute to a resilient and sustainable legal profession.
 

Education and resources

There are excellent resources available for workplaces to educate employees and employers in the mental health space. One such resource is the Black Dog Institute Mental Health Toolkit. Relevantly, this free resource highlights the following statistics:
 

  • $10.9 billion lost every year in absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims
     
  • three-four sick days taken each month for untreated depression
     
  • 50 per cent of managers think no-one in their workforce is affected by mental illness.

Through active interventions to educate the legal workplace community on mental illness, we can start to remove the stigma around mental health and prevent unnecessary harm. For example, it is a long-misunderstood myth that mental illness affects "weak" people when the reality is that mental illness is not caused by a personal weakness, and is also not cured by personal strength, it can happen to anyone, at any time.

A strong, resilient and enjoyable legal workplace community that supports positive mental health outcomes is one which encourages and keeps up the conversation around mental health and overall wellbeing. This might be through offering staff dedicated training on how to help their colleagues act on the warning signs of mental health challenges, advancing and updating policies that support good health outcomes, participating in external recreation activities, or simply having an informal chat between colleagues.
 


PHOEBE BLANK is an associate and workplace relations specialist at MinterEllison. She is the immediate past-president of the LIV Young Lawyers.


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