How Law Firms Are Helping People Navigate Wellbeing at Work


Steve Glaveski

The International Bar Association (IBA) recently published a report on the impact of COVID-19 on the emotional health of lawyers. While it would be incredibly naive to think that everything was fine pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has accelerated the instance and intensity of workplace stress amongst legal professionals.

As IBA president Horacio Bernades Neto put it, “the devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction, and other such attacks on our wellbeing preceded the Coronavirus pandemic, but there is no question that it has exacerbated their impact.”

Indeed, COVID-19 and all of its baggage (the uncertainty, the lack of control, the social isolation, the impact on communication, the working from home, the longer hours, the additional daily responsibilities, and so on) has driven wellbeing amongst lawyers to all-time lows.

Bad on 3,256 completed surveys from across the globe, the overall global wellbeing index score amongst lawyers was just 51 (from a possible 100). The wellbeing score amongst females (47) was almost 10 points lower than that of males (56), perhaps owing to traditional gender roles and additional responsibilities at home.

Source: IBA

Key reasons cited for workplace stress were pressure, excessive workload, work/life balance conflicts, and working environment. This echoes the findings of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report on workplace stress. 

Source: IBA


The Impact of Stress on Our Work

While the legal profession has long been guilty of putting billable hours ahead of wellbeing, the exacerbation in workplace stress is not unique to the industry. A meta-analysis published in Nature found that there has been a dramatic rise in the prevalence of mental health problems globally across industries.

The study found that almost one in three adults are suffering from depression and one in four from anxiety, which can impair our ability to focus at work.

When we’re anxious, we’ll engage in all sorts of tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding. Incessant screen switching. Social media scrolling. Dishwashing. Fridge door opening. Going for lots of walks. 

Whether we’re experiencing anxiety over a forthcoming event, unresolved issues in our lives, or chemical imbalances in our brains, anxiety reduces controlled attention resources. According to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the greater the anxiety, the more disruption occurs.  

State anxiety (self-reported feelings of anxiety) also decreases working memory performance, the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used to execute cognitive tasks. It is fundamental to focus on a given task, particularly a complex or difficult one. 

So, lawyers might not only be suffering from sub-optimal emotional wellbeing, but their work will also suffer with it, feeding a vicious downward emotional spiral.

How Law Firms Are Responding

Aside from well-worn interventions such as encouraging the use of meditation, exercise, time outdoors, breathwork and therapy, law firms are experimenting with various approaches, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Mills Oakley pushed its R U OK activities out over 10 weeks instead of a traditional single day, according to its CEO John Nerurker.

Johnson Winter & Slattery increased training for managers and business leaders, helping them facilitate wellbeing within their teams, according to its managing partner Peter Smith.

Managing partner of Sparke Helmore, Phillip Salem, said that the firm rolled out a number of online events and wellbeing checks in response to the pandemic.

King & Wood Malleson’s chief executive partner Berkeley Cox said that “check-ins with our people have become increasingly meaningful and intentional that they may have been before”. Checking in and starting the conversation is critical given that two in five lawyers say they cannot discuss wellness issues with their employer for fear of doing damage to their careers.

Paul Jenkins, global managing partner at Ashurst, said that the firm is attempting to foster a culture that empowers people to work in the most effective way for them professionally and personally.

And perhaps that’s just it.

Moving away from band-aid and reactive solutions towards reflecting on how we work is fundamental to making meaningful, sustainable changes. 

Moving Beyond Band-Aid Solutions

This move to better ways of work is desperately needed. The move to better ways of work is desperately needed. Gallup reported that 85 percent of people globally are either disengaged or not engaged at work. These numbers are echoed by miserable workplace stress statistics. In Australia, 46 percent of people find their workplace mentally unhealthy.

Earlier this year, Deloitte Australia’s CEO Adam Powick publicly announced the firm was eliminating start and finish times. However, without putting in place systems and processes or shifting the underlying values and culture, people will continue to work long hours regardless of what it says or doesn’t say in their employment contracts.

Work/life conflicts grew worse during the pandemic, and remote workforces reported working longer hours than before. This is evidence that simply telling people to work whenever and wherever they like isn’t going to address the systemic factors causing workplace stress. 

If we’re serious about giving lawyers both flexibility at work and fulfillment from it (and driving the bottom line as a result), then we could do much worse than addressing the following systemic behaviours that plague how work gets done and our emotional wellbeing as a result.

1. Move away from hyper-responsiveness and real-time communication towards asynchronous communication

Much of how we communicate at work today is real-time. 

The average person sends and receives 121 business emails a day, in addition to almost 100 Slack or Teams messages.. 

And then there’s all of the back-to-back hour-long Zoom calls and meetings, often to merely communicate information or be a fly on the wall. 

This all keeps us in a cycle of hyper-responsiveness, reminiscent of Pavlov’s dog, and robs us of our ability to think and apply our best cognition to solving problems and creating value. 

A move away from real-time communication to asynchronous communication, supported by task boards (such as those offered by Trello and Asana) , can help allay people of jam-packed calendars, and the need to be glued to their inbox or instant messaging platforms, giving them freedom to work.

But people need to know that it’s okay and even encouraged not to respond to inbound communications immediately. 

They need to know that it’s okay to be offline and to turn notifications off. 

Except for the most pressing and urgent of matters - which are rare if we’re honest, the world won’t end if we don’t respond immediately, but people’s working world will vastly improve. 

The move to asynchronous communication should be true of both internal communication and client communication. 

Rather than just having conversations before commencing an engagement with clients to ensure that your employees work per the client’s needs, we should look to align and also educate our clients to work in a way that will benefit both parties. 

The reason clients ask questions is because they have little visibility of work getting done - work that they’ve paid to get done. Again, this is where shared task boards give them said visibility, without the communication overhead impacting both their and your employee days. 

This will result in decreased communication overhead for your clients too who are also suffering from the same organizational toxicity.

2. Move away from an over-reliance on email 

Building upon the first point, the modern knowledge worker checks email once every 6 minutes on average, clocking up 3 hours a day in their inbox, prioritizing and confusing ‘inbox zero’ with delivering real outcomes. 

In fact, when IBM turned on email in the early 1980s, communication soared by a factor of 6 in just one week. We paid an immediate price for the ‘convenience’ of email.

The constant screen and context switching robs knowledge workers of their ability to get into the flow state and do their best, deep work. Why are we hiring great minds and paying them six figures if we’re going to keep them in a state of hyper-responsiveness and shallow level thinking? This ultimately leaves them “busy” all day, but often with little to show for it come the day's end other than exhaustion and a mounting workload. 

Moving away from email and towards task boards when it comes to both internal and client communications, can put significant downwards pressure on communication overhead, and give consultants more time to think, get great work done, and get on top of workloads.

3. Move away from hyper-availability and a culture of “yes”

The average knowledge worker spends 23 hours a week in meetings - more than half their contracted hours. Worse still, 71 percent of senior executives say that meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 

In most organizations we can simply block time in our colleague’s calendars, without giving a second thought to their priorities. Oftentimes, we book one hour by default, and invite a handful of people, most of whom don’t need to be there. 

Moving towards a culture where meetings are used as a last resort for communication, are shorter by default, and only feature key people is a start. Second, actively discouraging the theft of our colleague’s time, without having a very good reason for it, can help get us out of this “let’s call a meeting” culture, which is typically based on a desire to outsource accountability.

As Atlassian’s resident work futurist, Dominic Price, said, when he started saying “no” to all sorts of internal requests on his time, only one third of the meeting requests came back, saving him 15 hours a week for more important work.

Which brings me to…

4. Optimize for conviction over consensus

As organizations grow, we embed policies and systems to help them deliver on a repeatable and scalable business model, and to safeguard the business against harm. But often this comes at the expense of employee autonomy and adaptability. 

We should strive for an optimal level of processes and systems that empower employees without compromising the business. This is possible when you hire great people who are aligned with the values and mission of the organization, removing the need to ask telling questions like “how do you build  trust with remote employees?”

As Jeff Bezos wrote in his 1997 Amazon shareholder letter, we need to delineate between Type 1 decisions (big, hairy, audacious, expensive, irreversible) and Type 2 (inexpensive, reversible, learning utility), and empower our people to make and act on Type 2 decisions. 

Most decisions are Type 2 decisions but we treat most decisions as if they’re Type 1 decisions, and resign ourselves to countless meetings and emails, depriving our organizations of speed, and our people of autonomy and fulfillment. 

Delineate between the two, and empower your people to make and act on Type 2 decisions in both word, example, and policy. 

5. Ramp up the automation and outsourcing of rudimentary processes

I’ve got countless friends at big four firms who routinely tell me that they spent several hours on a Saturday completing expense reports. And these friends are senior managers on several hundred thousand dollars a year. What?

We can further allay people of work-life balance conflicts and excessive workloads by liberating them of step-by-step procedural work which can increasingly be automated or outsourced for a tiny fraction of what we’re paying consultants to do themselves. This frees them up for higher value work more in line with what we’re paying them for. 

Closing Thoughts

There’s more that can be done, but these five interrelated steps will go a very long way to giving lawyers the ability to do great work and create great outcomes for the firm without compromising their emotional health.

I appreciate that this is all easier said than done, and this is why I’ll close by calling on law firm leaders to take ownership over truly create a flexible and fulfilling workplace, one that leaves people with not only more time, but with lots more energy and enthusiasm to enjoy life away from their desks. 

As palliative care nurse and author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, put it, one of the most common regrets people on their deathbed have is wishing they didn’t work so hard. 

It’s high time we truly moved away from valuing hard work alone, towards celebrating smart work. 


Want to learn more about changing the way your firm works for the better? Check out our Personal Effectiveness and Wellbeing For Lawyers training module, facilitated by author of Time Rich (Wiley) and Harvard Business Review productivity contributor, Steve Glaveski.

See Steve's talk on productivity at work at SXSW Online 2021, below.

about the author

Steve Glaveski is a Harvard Business Review contributor on all things productivity, effectiveness and high-performance at work. He is the author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life (Wiley, 2020), a SXSW21 speaker, and just so happens to be co-founder of Collective Campus.



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