Shearman & Sterling’s Mariyam Hassan discusses the crucial link between wellbeing and inclusion, and how her actions are helping to improve both at her law firm. Interview by Jo Faragher.
When Mariyam Hassan was nominated for the ‘Best Individual Contribution’ award at this year’s People in Law awards, her colleagues at Shearman & Sterling noted her focus on action, rather than words. “The firm has always been a champion for diversity and inclusion,” they said, “but Mari recognised that words were not enough; specific and measurable actions were needed.”
In recognition of her commitment to wellbeing and D&I, Hassan was promoted to a newly created role of head of wellbeing and inclusion last year, although her background is as a generalist HR professional. The promotion pushed her to step out of her comfort zone and become a confident public speaker, and she often delivered external presentations before the pandemic restrictions came into force.
Some of the activities she has spearheaded at the firm include sessions from clients discussing their LGBT experiences, work with specialist charities such as Action on Hearing Loss, and encouraging former lawyers to come in and speak about their mental health challenges. Shearman & Sterling is considered to have a traditional culture, and attendees at these sessions said that they’d been given “fresh insight to the challenges faced by the firm”.
Since taking on the new role, she has worked well beyond her London remit, expanding the Shearman & Sterling Pride group across EMEA, working with the Paris women’s network and the firm’s Asian offices on a wellbeing programme. She also reinvigorated a number of the existing inclusion groups in London, with a significant increase in employees signing up to the firm’s LGBT ally programme.
Performance and profitability
Hassan believes inclusion and wellbeing are closely aligned, and became an accredited mental health first aid (MHFA) trainer in her own time. She has since trained almost 20% of colleagues to become MHFAs. All directors and 5% of partners in Shearman & Sterling’s London office have received the training, as have all EMEA office managers. Hassan has also trained employees at other firms, including a session for People in Law.
“Employee wellbeing is inextricably linked to employee productivity and engagement and ultimately the performance and profitability of a firm,” she says. “Wellbeing has become an increasingly important area in today’s society which is ever faster-paced, desk-based and reliant on technology and there is vast evidence of the negative effects on the employee.”
In law firms she feels this is particularly important, as they often have high rates of poor mental health “due to the pressure to meet client demands in an increasingly competitive environment”. Her efforts have helped to destigmatise talking about mental health at the organisation, with 25% of employees using the firm’s psychotherapy service in some way. Ninety per cent of current users have been open about their issues with HR, compared to fewer than 10% when the service started.
Alongside her efforts in mental health, another focus for Hassan has been disability. Thanks to self-funded training, she can now support employees with dyslexia, depression and physical disabilities. She created a targeted campaign to raise awareness of disabilities in the firm, including a work experience programme with the Mind charity to understand the challenges of those with autism and Asperger’s. The induction programme into the firm is now more disability-friendly, and she has produced guides for line managers on supporting disabled employees.
Covid-19 has put the spotlight on how organisations promote good mental health and engagement even more. Hassan adds: “The pandemic has transformed the way we work and I am keen to understand the employee experience and see how we can build on some of the working practices that have been positively perceived by employees.” She also believes the rising momentum of movements such as Black Lives Matter have accelerated the need to build an inclusive culture. “I hope I can build on the positive energy around diversity and inclusion to shift our culture from good to great,” she says. She describes her approach as data-driven, ensuring it is aligned with wider business goals and challenges.
Hassan is now on maternity leave and was “thrilled” to have won the award for her contribution. “It feels especially good to be valued for the work I have done and a good example of inclusion in action,” she says. Her contribution is important to the firm not just for the good of its own staff, but in reassuring clients that inclusion and wellbeing are high on its agenda. She is described as an “outstanding role model”, often investing her own time and money to improve her skills in this area. Her nominators add: “Through Mari’s hard work the firm has become more alive to the challenges of attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent.”