Although ‘wellbeing’ is often discussed, its meaning is not always clear. This article explores how the conceptualisation of wellbeing impacts upon workplaces, using original empirical work on the legal profession in the UK and Republic of Ireland as an illustration.
The term ‘wellbeing’ is ubiquitous within contemporary Western society. However, within popular parlance, its meaning is rarely unpacked. In fact, it is a broad, contested term with a range of possible meanings. Some definitions focus on maximising happiness, whereas others focus more on flourishing – the idea of leading a valuable and rich life. Yet other definitions attempt to merge, or at least synthesise, both aspects. The World Health Organization defines mental health as:
‘… a state of well-being 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.’
How individuals and groups within society understand and conceptualise wellbeing is significant. It is likely to influence whether they view it as important, how they respond to initiatives around wellbeing, and how they relate it to their own lives. Within workplaces, such conceptualisations could influence what support and guidance is requested and offered, how it is received and responded to, and the long-term success and sustainability of any wellbeing policies and initiatives that are implemented.
These are all important questions for workplaces. Employers have legal and ethical responsibilities to their employees requiring them to take wellbeing issues seriously. There is also a financial imperative, with a recent report suggesting that poor mental health costs employers up to £45 billion a year. The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for workplaces to consider these issues, generating uncertainty and myriad new challenges.
When conducting (pre-pandemic) focus groups with legal professionals for our book, Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Legal Profession, we provided our participants with the World Health Organization definition of wellbeing. However, we found that in discussions, participants tended to have a more restricted focus related to being able to cope and/or avoid being affected by mental ill-health. Their emphasis appeared to be on being able to survive within the profession, rather than thriving within their workplace. This suggests that legal professionals are not prioritising their mental health and wellbeing or feel that it is unrealistic to do so within the workplace. The competitive nature of law fosters an environment where success is closely linked to professional achievement and deviating from that focus can be seen as a form of failure.
In recent years, the legal profession has followed general societal trends in terms of a more explicit focus on, and discussion of, wellbeing. Nevertheless, our participants frequently indicated that there remained a stigma around mental health and wellbeing issues. The implication was that such issues were seen as a sign of weakness and therefore could negatively affect an employee’s standing within the workplace.
The fact that stigma remains such an issue within the legal profession is indicative of the way in which many of the issues around wellbeing within the legal workplace are deeply engrained in cultural and structural norms. For example, for many solicitors, working time is divided into six-minute units. To meet billing targets, they must ensure as many of those six minute units as possible are spent working on client files, so the time can be charged for. This contributes to a fast-paced working environment which participants described as being like a treadmill – a wheel that does not stop spinning, but ultimately does not go anywhere.
Such potentially harmful embedded cultural and structural norms show the need for employers to take a strong lead in tackling wellbeing issues. It is easier (and, in the short term, cheaper) for employers to focus on promoting individual self-care and resilience. However, it is both unrealistic and unfair to expect employees to thrive within an environment with so many potentially toxic components. There is a need to re-examine what constitutes ‘normal’ working practices to assess whether they remain justified (particularly in a post-COVID-19 ‘new norm’).
For self-employed barristers or other legal professionals working as sole practitioners, there is also a need for other key legal stakeholders, such as regulatory and representative bodies, to provide support and guidance in challenging cultural and structural issues affecting health and wellbeing. In a tightly regulated profession such as law, these bodies have significant standing and weight. The Wellbeing at the Bar portal is a good example of what can be done to begin to promote long-term change.
There does remain an important role for individuals to contribute to such wider change. However, our findings suggest that the focus of this needs to be on promoting greater self-awareness. Our participants often spoke about stress – the stressful nature of legal work itself, the demands of a professional role and the difficulties of achieving a form of work–life balance. In doing so, their focus was quite narrow. They often discussed changes in behaviour resulting from high levels of stress, for example being unable to sleep properly. They tended not refer to the emotional, cognitive and physiological symptoms of stress that are likely to have occurred even before their behaviour was impacted. Understanding and recognising these earlier signs could enable individuals to access help and support at an timelier stage, assuming such self-awareness was promoted alongside broader sector-wide changes.
Mental health and wellbeing are important throughout society. Within workplaces, disregarding these issues has legal, ethical and financial costs. At present, the legal profession has not prioritised wellbeing and as a result there is no real organisational impetus to address the profession’s issues. To tackle this, we propose employers and other key legal stakeholders now need to promote self-awareness alongside wider cultural and structural changes. The focus should be on flourishing and thriving rather than surviving and maintaining your professional standing at all costs.
Emma Jones is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sheffield.
Neil Graffin is Lecturer in Law at The Open University.
Rajvinder Samra is Lecturer at The Open University and a Chartered Psychologist.
Mathijs Lucassen is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health at The Open University and an honorary academic in Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland.
Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Legal Profession by Emma Jones, Neil Graffin, Rajvinder Samra and Mathijs Lucassen is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order the hardback here for £36.00, or the EPUB for £15.99.
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