Richard Foley: Recognition and support for mental wellbeing in the workplace

World Mental Health Day last Wednesday was a momentous day for campaigners and may prove to be a watershed for those who face mental health issues in the workplace.

Richard Foley is Senior Partner, Pinsent Masons LLP
Richard Foley is Senior Partner, Pinsent Masons LLP

It has existed for 25 years but this year World Mental Health Day felt different. Widespread coverage in the press and support throughout the business world has been staggering and this change of perspective has been long in the making.

It’s vital that we harness the momentum and turn it into action. In the legal sector, we are taking concrete steps to improve the environment for those who are suffering from mental health issues. The intense nature of legal work means that many people struggle to cope with stress, anxiety and depression and we have a responsibility to address this as a legal community.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Last Wednesday, a number of leading law firms and legal departments of major banks came together to sign the Mindful Business Charter, which commits them to changing working practices to remove unnecessary sources of workplace stress, and to promote better mental health and wellbeing in the legal community.

The Charter was developed by Pinsent Masons, Barclays and Addleshaw Goddard who were joined by Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest and law firms Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Eversheds Sutherland, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright and Simmons & Simmons, in committing to try to do things differently.

Our research in formulating the charter showed that simple changes to common behaviours that can become key drivers of stress have the potential to make a world of difference.

Commitments under the charter include ensuring that when team members take a holiday, where possible there is no longer an expectation that they should be available to respond to work emails.

It also encourages respect for core working hours and agile workers, considering when meetings can be held by phone or video conference rather than in person, and avoiding over-use of email and copying people into emails they don’t need to receive. Individually these may sound like small behavioural changes, but together they hold the potential to substantially reduce stress in the workplace.

Responding to client and business needs is important and there will be times when an urgent matter needs immediate attention. However, there are many occasions when this is not necessary, and we need to do better as a profession at making the difference clearer.

The Mindful Business Charter represents collective recognition and support for open communication. Continued interruptions have a significant impact on how we feel about our jobs, on our relationships and family life. Taking steps to remove the avoidable ones will result in people feeling happier, valuable and more positive about their careers.

A crucial part of the charter will be ensuring responsible business is assessed during significant procurement processes. Performance against these principles will be monitored at relationship review meetings where all parties will be encouraged to be open and honest about day-to-day communication, what is working well and areas that could be improved. The review meetings will be crucial to driving genuine change and in promoting a culture of ongoing meaningful feedback.

We understand that to effect meaningful change will take time and dedication, so we’re starting with a small group – the banks’ legal teams and their private practice lawyers. They will monitor and feedback on the progress of the charter, and in time this will be broadened out to other areas, but it’s important to build momentum and make sure that we’re getting it right.

Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard developed the charter so that it is flexible enough to be deployed across a wide range of professional and financial services, not just commercial banks and legal advisers. The aim is to see other businesses adopting the approach over time, leading to an altogether healthier approach to working.

This is the first time banks and their legal service providers have come together to reach a shared agenda for mental health and wellbeing. The real behavioural changes that will make a difference in people’s daily working lives will take time. We are not under any illusions that this will be easy. But the will and determination to make working life better throughout the legal world is very much in place, and that’s something we can build on.

Richard Foley is senior partner, Pinsent Masons LLP