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It's ok to talk about mental health: how wellbeing delivers value at law firm Burges Salmon

Earlier this year legal firm Burges Salmon was awarded ‘excellent’ in the Bristol Workplace Wellbeing Charter. Chief people officer Robert Halton tells The People Space why wellbeing is important to the business

Mental health

Jade* walked to the front of the room and glanced at the assembled group. Sitting within that group were her immediate boss together with senior partners of the £87 million law firm and her close colleagues. She took a deep breath and began. “I want to tell you about the nervous breakdown I had.”

Fast forward a month and in front of that same group stood one of the partners of the firm. “Remember when Jade told us about her nervous breakdown? It happened to me too.”

These, says Burges Salmon chief people officer Robert Halton, were two of the most powerful moments in the firm’s journey towards embedding wellbeing into its culture. “It captivated the audience, as no one expected them to be as open as they were. That broke down the barrier. It said to our people, this is something you can talk about.”

Creating an environment where employees at any level feel confident enough to speak frankly about mental health is at the heart of Burges Salmon’s wellbeing strategy. Over the past few years, the firm’s focus has moved away from a reactive, support approach to one that develops resilient individuals and teams.

Creating a 'must-have' wellbeing programme

Halton was all too aware, though, that wellbeing programmes often fail because they are viewed as nice-to-have and not must-have, and that too many fall into the initiative category rather than being a comprehensive workplace health promotion strategy. Yet in a professional services firm, people really are your only asset, so ensuring your people are physically, emotionally and mentally well is a business-critical issue.

Robert Halton Burges Salmon

“Wellbeing is a good thing in itself but at the end of the day it helps drive business. People who drive on all cylinders work harder and people who are well in all areas perform better. Most of us are, by definition, average, even if the standard of ‘average’ is high. We need to create the conditions in which all people can meet and exceed their potential.”

In professional services companies such as legal firms, wellbeing is key to meeting potential. Some studies have found lawyers have higher burnout rates than other workers. Dealing with complex issues, high psychological demands, frequent and demanding client interaction and the pressure of making decisions contribute to a high-pressured environment. Emotional and mental exhaustion caused by intense and deadline-driven contact with clients can result in negative attitudes, lack of empathy, cynicism and reduced performance. All of which can have a devastating impact on the individual but also on the business.

But generating personal awareness of this is a challenge, says Halton.

“We need to create an environment where we can say, you know it is ok to talk about some of this stuff. Some people are more prone to being less resilient than others. It’s about spotting the signs. Often people in the workplace, even if they do spot the signs, feel it is not appropriate to say anything whereas they wouldn’t worry about saying to a colleague, you’ve got flu, go home.

“So, one of the main things is making people more aware of each other and showing an interest in each other. In a professional service organisation people are used to working in a highly pressurised environment and clients expect a lot of them. Getting the balance is not easy. Sometimes it’s about helping people to be open with their clients as well as their colleagues.”

Choosing the right framework

One way to achieve this is to think carefully about your employee population rather than importing the latest idea and approach. Lawyers like facts, standards, evidence and dealing with other specialists.

For this reason, Burges Salmon adopted the framework of the Bristol Workplace Wellbeing Charter, a Bristol City Council run voluntary scheme designed to recognise the positive way in which businesses support their workforce and encourage productive companies. Sickness absence alone costs the Bristol economy between £120 million to £240 million per year, 10 million lost working hours.

“I don’t believe in bringing in consultants to do work for you, but I do believe in bringing in organisations to test what you do. You can then listen to their feedback and take actions based on that feedback. We looked at the charter’s framework and thought it was appropriate to the changes we were trying to bring in. What we liked was that this framework allowed us to benchmark where we were against externally-validated criteria,” Halton explains.

The charter involves self-assessing against a set of eight nationally agreed standards: attendance management, mental health and wellbeing, physical activity, smoking and tobacco-related ill health, healthy eating, alcohol and substance abuse, health and safety and leadership. The company then has to devise an action plan to drive future change and work with staff and other organisations to implement good practice. To achieve ‘excellent’, the business needs to demonstrate a range of programmes and support mechanisms with a fully engaged leadership behind them.

To help in developing resilience, Halton did bring in outsiders, but not the typical consultant. For example, the company ran two sessions on mindfulness delivered by a retired GP.

“We didn’t want people with little bells telling you about how Buddhism can help you become mindful. Bringing in a GP appeals to professionals. It no longer becomes a session in which they are thinking, do I believe in this stuff? but instead one in which the individual is thinking, yes my body is a machine and I need to get it under control or regain control and to understand how it works,” says Halton.

The role of leadership

Another important strand to the wellbeing strategy is leadership. Role modelling by leaders is one of the success factors underpinning workplace wellbeing, Hence the partner leading a session on mental health. One of the particular challenges in professional services is that many partners do not see themselves as leaders, and if you don’t see yourself as a leader you won’t see yourself as a role model.

To tackle this, Halton approached Judge Business School in Cambridge to develop a bespoke programme. But while it was explicitly designed around leadership, the firm positioned it to partners as a management development programme. This way the partners came to their own realisation that they were leaders, and therefore role models. To date 46 partners have been through the programme and within two years all partners will have attended, giving them a common language and toolkit to employ.

Burges Salmon was originally assessed by Bristol City Council in 2014. The main feedback, says Halton, was that the firm needed to be more explicit about its wellbeing strategy. While wellbeing was intrinsic to the people strategy, it hadn’t been articulated as a particular priority. The firm needed to better articulate what wellbeing meant to the business. “That is when you go back to hanging wellness on to the performance of your people,” says Halton.

Job done, the same lead assessor at Bristol City Council, public health principal Claire Lowman, assessed the firm again earlier this year and it was awarded an ‘excellent’ across all eight standards of the Wellbeing Charter.

“I was impressed at the progress in all eight dimensions. The organisation has moved towards a prevention of illness model, with a focus on increasing resilience in individuals and teams. Excellent practice was demonstrated in collaborative work on creating organisational values and promoting positive mental health throughout the organisation,” she says.

Following this recognition, Burges Salmon is consolidating the strategy with the intention of enabling its people to take responsibility for it themselves in the workplace. It is also planning to go a stage further and frame the whole firm around the model of a responsible business. As Halton says: “We want to create an environment in which being a responsible business is the way in which we achieve our commercial goals. It all links together.”


* Names have been changed. Published 26 July 2017

In a professional service organisation people are used to working in a highly pressurised environment and clients expect a lot of them. Sometimes it’s about helping people to be open with their clients as well as their colleagues

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