Protecting mental health at work

Tips on how to ensure you are protecting the mental health of the people in your legal workplace 

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Health and safety in the workplace is evolving to include the risks to mental health in workplaces and a recognition that these should be actively managed. Employers should look at their organisational culture and working practices and consider their responsibilities to ensure that these create an environment which supports psychological safety and mental health – a mentally healthy workplace. 

What are the risks to mental health at work?

Risks to mental health at work, also known as psychosocial risks, are a broad range of factors relating to the workplace and working that can cause psychological harm and can come from:

  • work management or design
  • the work environment
  • workplace relationships and social interactions

The World Health Organization has identified common risks to mental health at work (Guidelines on mental health at work) and those that are  relevant to the legal sector include:

  • excessive workloads
  • long, unsocial, or inflexible hours
  • lack of control over workload or job design
  • organisational culture that enables negative behaviours
  • poor workplace relationships
  • limited support from colleagues, poor management, or authoritarian supervision
  • harassment, sexual harassment or bullying
  • discrimination and exclusion
  • unclear job role and expectations
  • low reward and recognition, poor investment in career development
  • conflicting home/work demands
  • isolated or remote working
  • exposure to traumatic events

How does exposure to psychosocial risk cause harm?

Some of these risk factors such as exposure to traumatic events have the potential to directly cause harm – legal professionals working in family, criminal, immigration, or crime may develop vicarious trauma because of exposure to the trauma experienced by their clients. 

However, for most people, it is a combination of exposure to psychosocial risks at work which can undermine their mental health and lead to anxiety, stress, burnout, or depression. 

The legal workplace is characterised by inherent psychosocial risks - working long hours, poor work life balance, meeting the expectations of demanding clients, heavy caseloads, the pressure of deadlines and billing targets, whilst maintaining high standards of ethical and professional conduct.  

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How can legal workplaces protect mental health?

The tendency in legal workplaces is to respond to people with work related mental health conditions, once the problem has arisen; the goal should be to prevent work related mental health conditions developing in the first place.

The key to prevention is to proactively manage the psychosocial risks in legal workplaces that can cause harm.  

Practical steps to mitigate psychosocial risks in workplaces and protect mental health    

Review your organisational culture

Begin with, asking some questions - How well do you understand the perspective of colleagues on your organisational culture?  Do colleagues feel they work in an environment that fosters trust, respect and psychological safety? Do colleagues feel able to speak up about their mental health and work-related concerns?  Are you tracking the issues raised by staff about mental health or workplace behaviours?  When concerns are raised, is action being taken to address them? Are the leaders and managers in your organisation on top of these issues?

If not, then identify the questions you need to ask and the data you need to gain insight into what the issues are. Record and benchmark the findings, take action to address the work that may need to be done and communicate this to your employees. 

Engage your leaders

Protecting the mental health of the people in your organisation requires the commitment of leaders to tackle the issues and provide resources. Leaders need to regard mental health as an organisational priority that they are responsible for. Support and educate leaders in their vital role by providing them with evidence of the issues, the effectiveness of existing measures and quantify this in financial terms.  Encourage them to be visible allies by demonstrating their commitment to a positive workplace culture and capacity for change.

Invest in management training

Good line management can help manage and prevent work related mental health concerns. Line managers are often the first to notice changes in colleagues that are indicative of declining mental health and/or are the first port of call when a colleague has an issue. Regular catch ups build trust and better working relationships and are an opportunity to monitor tasks, workload and solve problems. Effective line management fosters psychological safety and empowers employees to speak up, ask questions or share ideas.  Line managers need emotional competence and compassion to develop positive relationships with colleagues.  Ensure that those that manage others in your workplace have the support, education, resources and skills to do this well and that leaders recognise the value of managing people effectively.

Embed psychosocial risk management in your organisational risk framework 

Move from a support-based approach to mental health to a risk-based approach by proactively addressing work related issues such as stress to reduce the likelihood of colleagues developing mental health issues.  Ensure those with responsibility for risk, compliance and health and safety work together to create a joined-up approach to managing psychosocial risks in your workplace.   

Provide staff with the support and resources they need

Ensure that staff have regular 1:1 catch ups with their manager. Monitor and manage workloads and ensure staff and teams are adequately resourced to get their work done. Encourage participation in relevant external or internal mentoring or peer support schemes. Build a culture of meaningful connection in your organisation through special interest groups, team discussions, town hall style meetings, forums, social activities or committee meetings. 

Adopt sustainable ways of working

A sustainable workplace safeguards the mental health of its people. Provide flexible working such as working from home or flexible hours to allow more time for responsibilities outside work and activities that support mental wellbeing. Support staff to work healthy hours, take breaks and their holiday entitlement. Promote autonomy.

Build an inclusive workplace

Inclusive and equitable workplaces mitigate psychosocial risks such as bullying, harassment and discrimination and encourage positive behaviours such as collaboration and mutual support. They foster a culture of community and belonging, where colleagues feel able to be themselves, share concerns and where everyone feels safe.

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