Supporting staff through the pandemic and the uncertainty it has brought has been a major HR focus in 2020. But new challenges are beginning to emerge – as well as opportunities to tackle traditional ones. Ashleigh Webber reports
The impact of COVID-19, enforced home working and the disconnection from support networks, teams and the workplace as had a phenomenal impact on employees mental, physical and, sometimes, financial wellbeing.
Countless surveys this year have shown the scale of the problem: recently, the Centre for Mental Health found as many as a fifth of adults would need mental health support post-pandemic, and analysis of employee engagement surveys by software provider Glint identified that the number of staff displaying symptoms of burnout has reached a two-year high.
Law firms were quick to act when the UK went into lockdown in March, putting in place a raft of initiatives to support employees’ wellbeing – from remote resilience training sessions to deploying mental health first aiders. But as they look forward to 2021, with hopes raised of a COVID-19 vaccine, their thinking has shifted: how can they support employee wellbeing when this is over and the hybrid office/home model is more established?
“The challenges of the pandemic could be a springboard for real progress in workplace wellbeing,” says Andy Gibson, founder of Mindapples, an organisation that provides workplace training and e-learning on mental health and wellbeing. “We have never been more aware of the need to support each other, or the importance of the daily habits and structures that help us live and work better.”
Gibson says this increased engagement in wellbeing and recognition of the problems that colleagues may be facing means firms can get staff more involved in the formulation of their wellbeing plans, and use their feedback to challenge long-established cultures.
“This may involve clear signals from senior managers and partners, with leaders making changes in expectations and placing more trust in the ingenuity and commitment of their employees,” he says.
“It may also involve employee-led initiatives, bringing staff together to develop mutual support structures and address issues together, and placing more trust and responsibility on individuals to create the working environment they want.
“By putting people at the heart of this recovery, we can continue to ensure our organisations reflect the human approach that has been so important to coping with this pandemic and preserve the best parts of this collective spirit.”
Traditional issues and emerging challenges
Work-related stress, high-pressure environments and poor work-life balance are not new issues for the legal profession, and in many ways the pandemic has highlighted the need for firms to tackle these head on.
However, Kate Dodd, diversity and inclusion specialist at Pinsent Masons, says there is still some way to go address established cultures that have a detrimental effect on wellbeing.
“In the legal profession as a whole, there is still this badge of honour associated with working all night, still sending emails at 11pm, being the busiest person on the floor and the last person to leave the office. That has to change,” she says. “There is also a challenge around meeting client expectations; deadlines and working practices that are not conducive of real life.”
But several new challenges are beginning to emerge, including the blurring line between work and home life and maintaining connections with others as teams become permanently dispersed.
Jemimah Cook, HR director at Kingsley Napley, says: “We will need to ensure that the right support is there for managers to bring their teams back together in a different way. There will be greater flexibility in how we work and how frequently we attend the office, but that will have altered working habits and will make it more difficult to draw the line between home and work.”
Cook says ensuring conversations about health and wellbeing continue to happen will maintain the momentum in addressing wellbeing challenges beyond the pandemic.
“Creating an open culture where employees feel that they can speak up about issues without judgment and ensuring that individuals are self-aware of what their needs might be at a particular time will help to avoid burnout,” she says.
“It needs to stay on the agenda at leadership level and we have learnt some important lessons during this time which we should hold on to.”
Planning beyond COVID
Trowers & Hamlins is also among the firms looking at the wellbeing interventions that need to be in place to tackle post-pandemic challenges. It is currently examining what the future requirements may be, but these are likely to evolve continually, says head of reward Sue Brooks.
“We need to be thinking beyond COVID and visualising our workplace over the course of the next five years and putting in place measures that will help us achieve our strategic aims of significantly increased diversity and social mobility and equipping our people with the skills and resources they need to prosper, in whatever environment we find ourselves in,” she says.
“One of the things that this pandemic has demonstrated is how resilient we are and how quickly we can adapt to new things if we have the right support and communications in place.”
A sustained focus on wellbeing will be at the core of the firm’s strategy moving forward and will present a significant competitive advantage in the war for talent, suggests Brooks. Future wellbeing programmes will need “a broad and holistic view of wellbeing, with financial, mental, physical and social wellbeing being key factors”, she adds.
The hybrid workforce
Wellbeing programmes will need to be equally beneficial to both staff working from home and in the office, says Pinsent Masons’ Dodd. With fewer staff able to take advantage of face-to-face training and events, firms need to be careful not to leave home workers out.
“We need to put things in place that don’t treat people working from home like second class citizens,” she says. “When we had people back in the office briefly, everyone had to be on Teams for meetings even if they were in the workplace together, which was fairer for those working from home.”
She adds that care will need to be taken around the language used to describe teams working in different places. Pinsent Masons initially used ‘Team A and Team B’ to describe office workers and home workers respectively when bringing staff back after the first lockdown, but realised that this could create the perception that home workers were of lower value.
Secondly, Dodd says reaching every employee – not only those interested in health and wellbeing – is a continuing challenge. As a global firm, Pinsent Masons will be looking at the “globalisation” of its current wellbeing interventions, so long as they are appropriate in different cultures and environments.
Asked what the biggest future wellbeing challenge the legal profession faced, Trowers & Hamlins’ Brooks says mental health will need particular attention, but all areas of wellbeing will prove a challenge.
“Work pressures, isolation, family problems, schooling and health concerns all combine to greater or lesser degrees, but then often present themselves as a mental health condition,” she adds.
Mindapples’ Gibson says action needs to be taken now to address some of the mental health issues that lockdowns and isolation have created.
“The biggest concern in public health circles is that short term stresses and worries could have longer-term mental health effects if we don’t take steps to support people early,” he says. “I would expect a key challenge post-pandemic to be one of prevention and early intervention, encouraging people to ask for help and report problems, and providing practical and psychological support for people. If we get this right we can help people stay well and bounce back quickly, rather than risking longer-term and more serious problems that might need more clinical help.”
He suggests three areas of focus over the coming months: stability, autonomy and purpose.
“Stability is to do with whether our expectations are being met, and whether we are able to build stable habits and make plans for the future,” he says, suggesting that people should be given tasks that “aren’t at the mercy of changes of policy” to give people the certainty they need to plan ahead.
“Autonomy relates to our capacity to effect change, manage our time and do things in a way that feels right for us… Trusting people enough to use their own judgment can help them feel less pressured and more motivated,” he advises.
“Finally, purpose is that sense of everyone pulling together in a common cause, feeling supported by colleagues and management and that their efforts are appreciated. A shared purpose is a good way to bring people together, so having a sense of what the firm is hoping to achieve over the next six-to-nine months, and how everyone can contribute to it, can help give people something useful to do during the long haul.”
The level and type of support employees will require beyond the pandemic is largely unknown, even though a mix of home and office working in future has been widely accepted by many organisations. Looking out for signs of struggle and responding to these in a timely way will remain vital for maintaining staff wellbeing as COVID-19 subsides and new challenges emerge.