Pandemic impacts on Wills and Probate professionals’ mental health

Today’s Wills and Probate wanted to mark and recognise World Mental Health tomorrow (10th October) to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health and well-being in the private client sector and legal industry as a whole.

Mental health has been endemic in the legal profession for some time, and the well-being of practitioners is especially important right now, in the world we live in, with not only pressure from professional working lives but also personal too.

It goes without saying that working as a legal professional can be very stressful, with never-ending workloads and emotionally complex challenging cases, and off course, the added stress of a pandemic added to the mix too.

At the beginning of 2019, Legal Mental Health Charity, LawCare, reported receiving their highest ever number of helpline calls from solicitors in 2018. An even more concerning statistic was that calls from solicitors complaining about bullying and harassment had nearly doubled in 2018.

Since then, LawCare have been tackling the issue of mental health across the industry. Last year they launched a new advocacy scheme ‘LawCare Champions’, which aims to appoint legal professionals in the UK to act as mental health and wellbeing advocates within the legal community.

Fourteen champions were appointed in 2019 which was a huge asset helping spread the word about LawCare and the importance of good mental health and wellbeing amongst the legal community. Since then, LawCare’s champions have evolved over the last 12 months and they have reported this week that they now have 37 champions in total.

Since 10th March, LawCare have been monitoring calls and have reported 28 per cent of all support contacts, including calls, webchats and emails, have had a covid element. This represents 154 out of 544 contacts since the pandemic started.

The mains issues that practitioners have been contacting Lawcare about are worsening of existing mental issues, not being permitted to work from home/not wanting to return to work after furlough, overloaded with work due to colleagues being furloughed, Struggling to adapt working from home and emotional distress due to isolation/boredom.

This month, LawCare also launched a ground-breaking research study ‘Life In The Law’ ahead of World Mental Health Day too.

Elizabeth Rimmer, Chief Executive of LawCare said:

“As World Mental Health Day approaches we continue to be concerned about the emotional and financial impact of the pandemic. We would like to remind all legal professionals, including support staff, they can contact us for free, in confidence, to discuss anything that is bothering them. Talking through your problems with one of our trained staff and volunteers, who have all worked in the law themselves, can really help.”

With the many changes over the last 6 months or so, we asked organisations and practitioners what impact the new work culture and working practices has had on them personally and what
measures/changes/support have been put in place to build a positive mental well-being culture in their firm/organisation.

Lindsay Maclean, Regional Director of SFE (Solicitors for the Elderly) and Partner, Personal Law Department at Gibson Kerr’s Edinburgh office says the Covid-19 crisis has further increased her focus on mental wellbeing. She said:

“So much has changed over the last six months, but perhaps, for me, the biggest is in the way I lead my team. Those changes are definitely here for the long-term. Clear and more regular internal communications took centre stage to survive the lockdown and foster a positive workplace culture no matter where people are based. Of course there have been changes to make sure everyone feels physically safe, with new protocols and PPE. But it’s so important to make mental health a priority.

“This is something my firm has been mindful of over the last few years, and given recent circumstances it’s more important than ever to know whether your team is coping with world events, as well as their workload, and how working remotely is affecting them mentally. We put in place a Lockdown Wellbeing Checklist to encourage staff to think about their mental wellbeing; take breaks; have a separation between work and home life and to find ways to de-stress.

“Regular catch ups as a team, taking time to invest in training more junior members of staff (recognising this may take longer remotely), and carving out some time for fun have all been essential. Working remotely can be lonely, and can severely impact mental health. I’ve found that hosting Zoom quizzes, yoga classes or virtual after-work drinks have really boosted morale, and made us feel a little closer as a team.

“We know there has been an increase in stress among solicitors working in isolation. In my view the conversation about mental health in the legal sector needs to be more open. We should all be able to spot mental health issues, in ourselves and others, and know where to go for help.

“Prioritising our own mental wellbeing means we’ll be better able to look after our clients, and is particularly key for those of us specialising in supporting older and vulnerable people like my fellow SFE members.”

Eleanor Evans, Partner at High James said:

“Here at Hugh James, most of our teams have been working remotely since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst we had the IT and processes to enable us to work from home, it was still unexpected and the huge changes to our working lives have had a real impact on our staff. Like many teams that are used to the camaraderie of office-based working, we have tried to keep in touch “face to face” as much as possible with meetings on Microsoft Teams. Communication has been key. Our Managing Partner has sent a weekly email with a round-up of firm news and helpful information for all staff and our HR team have sent out ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ emails and hosted virtual coffee mornings. We also have a firmwide “social” channel in Teams which is used to share good news stories, ranging from good outcomes we have achieved for our clients, to personal news about babies and engagements. These measures have helped to maintain morale whilst we wait for it to be possible to return to the office, whether on a full or part-time basis.”

Louise Sackey, solicitor at IDR Law shares her experiences. She added:

“I feel from my own previous personal experiences and that of my colleagues and friends in the profession is that generally law firms are more interested in profits than people and this has such a negative impact on peoples mental health and work life balance.

“Before joining IDR Law, my experience was that whilst many firms may have policies for staff wellbeing the actual basic day to day needs are not supported.

“Many people I know feel that it is an industry where nothing is ever good enough and employers always want more. Presenteeism is a major problem they assume if you are working late or early then you are a better employee ( i.e. more worthy of a pay rise or promotion) just because you are in the office more even if we all know that some of that time was spent browsing the internet or chatting to colleagues. Whilst young lawyers can do this with the hopes of pay rises and promotion this becomes difficult when people have children. Whilst I’m sure that men do feel this pressure too, I think it becomes much harder for women as they are often the part time workers and the ones dealing with childcare. Working part time often doesn’t mean less work it just means you have less hours to do the same work.

“Obviously, I can’t talk about change over the pandemic as we always work from home, but working for IDR Law has completely changed my life, yet not my billing or my outcome at work. Being able to work from home the hours that suit me means that I don’t have to make the choice of my career, pay or lifestyle over my children. I am so fortunate to be able to take my children to school and eat my dinner with them every day whilst still working in a job that I love.

“I also feel that it helps you manage your health and stress levels. If I am feeling unwell then I can just do a bit less that day and catch up tomorrow when I’m feeling better. That rest usually means I do feel better tomorrow rather than forcing myself into a commute and the office all day which inevitably means that I feel worse tomorrow. Whilst my children were always ill when worked long hours they have not been ill once since we all stopped working long hours (because when I work long hours so do they!) and are home more.

“I only hope that a good thing that will come out of the pandemic is that law firms will realise that working from home is not a bad thing, that employees can be trusted (they are time recording anyway!) and even if it’s not full time more people can benefit from having a lie in rather than getting up early to commute a long distance, taking their children to school occasionally or even just taking a day off as they don’t feel like it or are having a bad day. If they are meeting their hours what difference does it make!

“I don’t think that this needs to affect people’s output at work, but it will generally make them feel happier and more content with their lives and their jobs. Thereby reducing sick leave and staff turnover.”

Andrea Pierce, Legal Services Director at Kings Court Trust talks about the support they have put in place to build a positive mental well-being culture in the business. She said:

“As an SME of just over 100 employees we take the mental health of all those employed very seriously. We took a decision about 18 months ago to recruit (internally) for Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) as it was recognised that such a role was equally as important as having a First Aider in situ. We have three MHFA’s who have all attended an externally run course paid for by the business, who any of their colleagues can turn to in confidence as an alternative for staff having to approach their line manager, which may not happen and therefore create more anxiety and stress.

“They have set up events in the office such as a ‘positive tree’ where all colleagues could put a note on with an inspiring quote or comment. They placed posters around the office about self-care and the like. Pre Covid-19 they frequently arranged ‘tea and chats’ for all colleagues but of course it is during the pandemic that they have come into their own, for which as a business we are extremely grateful.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic and the various stages of ‘lockdown’, all three of the MHFA’s did monthly blogs which they circulated to the whole of the business about their own mental health, whether it was working from home or the nervousness about coming back into the office. In recognition of World Mental Health Day next week, they are also arranging another ‘tea and chat’; a face to face one in the office (socially distant of course) and also a virtual one for those working at home. As a business throughout the pandemic we have put the needs of colleagues first making it non-mandatory to work in the office and being flexible about working from home, but we are now starting a phased return to the office and the MHFA’s will be key in facilitating this.”

 Andrew Houston, Director at Countrywide Tax and Trust Corporation Ltd commented:

“I think initially with the focus in the early stages of lockdown very much around getting used to a virtual environment and how as a company could operate using different platforms to communicate, it was a matter of trying and learning new ways of working. Given there was not any period of preparation, we were thrown into making immediate changes to how we worked, we learnt to adapt quite quickly and that change had a more limited impact on me. Whilst that enabled the company and myself to operate the novelty started to wear off after months of virtual working. Given I had an office at home to work from, the environment was not so difficult for me but I could see others juggling with home schooling, pets and other partners wondering the house looking for a quiet space to compete virtual calls. The real challenge for me has been trying to maintain those creative conversations that often come from a discussion in a corridor or over a coffee with a colleague, trying to reconnect people in an informal way virtually has been difficult because some of these moments come from dialogue that comes from simply being in the presence of others.

“That said I have been concerned for our staff. Everyone’s circumstances are different i.e. the environment in which they live, with who (some live alone as so are in isolation for long periods), the technology they have available and Wi-Fi strength.

“So what have we done as a company:

“1. Increased the level of engagement with all staff – This was done through virtual calls, using Microsoft Teams as a new way of communicating in person or via chat as well as phone and e-mail

“2. We are part the way through a new leadership training programme – This has been designed to improve the depth and regularity of engagement we have with staff – part of this is recognising that mindset is critical to people being able to function effectively and that as leaders you can be wearing the hat of a manager, coach or leader at any time. Recognising how people are feeling and creating an environment that they can talk openly is critical to being able to support our colleagues.

“3. As a company we have continually looked at ways we can help individuals who maybe struggling with mental health, as each scenario is different there is never one solution that fits all and we have looked at each case with our HR team to ascertain the right actions. Examples we have already dealt with or are dealing are feelings of social isolation, uncertainty leading to anxiety and emotional distress.

“4. There is a very strong family culture here at Countrywide Tax and Trust Corporation so everyone is always looking to support each other which again creates other informal support groups for individuals

Heledd Wyn, Director at Gregg Latchams further commented:

“I would say that the impact of working from home had been immensely positive! It has enabled me to manage my time much better, give clients a much better service as for many of my clients they’ve enjoyed the freedom of video calls rather than making a journey to a city centre office. Days in the office are for catching up with colleagues for banter & team camaraderie and allows for a weekly ‘open door’ day to discuss issues people might have that they are reluctant to share via email or telephone.”

For further information visit LawCare’s website www.lawcare.org.uk and helpline 0800 279 6888 and email [email protected]

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